US launch for Virtual Reality Vision Impairment Simulator led by Belfast mum

By | Business, General, News

US launch for Virtual Reality Vision Impairment Simulator led by Belfast mum

A ground-breaking VR vision impairment simulator, developed by a Belfast mum to help parents see through the eyes of their visually impaired children, will be showcased in the United States at a major international conference in July.

Sara McCracken formed social enterprise Empatheyes at Innovation Factory in Belfast to produce a unique new system combining state of the art software with the latest virtual reality technology to replicate an individual’s exact visual impairment.

The idea and passion came about when Sara, CEO and founder of charity Angel Eyes NI, which supports blind and partially sighted children, began searching for a product that would let parents understand how their children see the world to help them advocate on behalf of their children and secure the right services.

Sara herself is the mother of 17-year-old twins who have a rare genetic condition, diagnosed when they were babies, which impacts their sight.

“I wanted something that could instantly demonstrate how an individual child sees the world to people who don’t have a clinical background.  There are so many differences in what a visually impaired person can see and it’s very difficult for a sighted person to comprehend. Initially I assumed there would be a digital product out there that would do that but I searched for such a long time and there was nothing,” she said.

She wanted to create a unique system, which provides 360-degree immersion with built-in eye tracking that can be specifically calibrated to recreate more than 30 eye conditions in a variety of settings such as a school classroom, a busy street, bus or play park.

She set about putting a team together to develop the product, including clinical lead Professor Jonathan Jackson, head of optometry at the Royal Victoria Hospital and technology lead Dr Alec Kingsnorth, an optometry expert and software developer who has worked at Aston University in Birmingham. Ulster University’s Professor of Optometry and Vision Science Kathryn Saunders has also joined the social enterprise as clinical lead trainer.

“By simply putting this headset on, we can demonstrate to parents, carers, teachers and others how the world looks to each visually impaired person so they can fully understand how to make the best adaptations,” she said.

After trialling the product with professionals and carers, it was successfully launched in the UK and Ireland in 2022.

Empatheyes, which recently won a Tech for Good award from Digital DNA, will now be unveiled to an international audience at Vision 2023, a major conference in Denver that brings together professionals and researchers from around the world to share ideas and learn from each other to improve the lives of people with visual impairment or blindness.

“The United States is a massive market and they don’t have anything like it there. There’s a lot of excitement already from professionals over there to see this VR system that we created right here in Northern Ireland. The use of VR is so powerful that it can have a transformative effect on people as they finally understand how a visually impaired person sees the world,” she said.

One mum, Caroline Henderson, whose daughter Aibhilin is visually impaired, spoke of her reaction when she and her husband Carl were able to use Empatheyes.

“It’s an amazing experience to put on a headset and see the world in the way that Aibhilin experiences it. The VR technology is so powerful and helpful for both parents and professionals. My husband Carl was very moved by the experience and it changed his perspective and parenting techniques. It gave me more confidence to advocate on Aibhilin’s behalf,” she said.

The profits of the social enterprise Empatheyes will help to fund the services of Angel Eyes NI to support families and children with a vision impairment.

The organisation now is located at Innovation Factory and has been supported by the team there.

“We chose to open an office at Innovation Factory because we liked their ethos to support the local community and engage with young people. The team at IF also helped us network, make new contacts and source funding opportunities that really took us to the next level,” Sara said.

Innovation Factory is owned by Belfast City Council and operated on its behalf by Oxford Innovation Space. The £9.1m business hub was funded by Belfast City Council and Invest NI with support from the European Regional Development Fund.

Stephen Ellis, Innovation Manager at Innovation Factory, explained that the team at the centre were keen to support new businesses by offering support and advice.

“It’s been really exciting to see how this organisation has grown since they moved into the centre in 2020. They are highly focused and are determined to help visually impaired children and their families. Their entry into the US market brings cutting edge technology developed in Belfast onto the world stage,” he said.

Innovation Factory can offer advice to new and growing businesses. For more information on Innovation Factory go to www.innovationfactoryni.com.

For more information on Empatheyes go to www.empatheyes.co.uk.

Sara McCracken, from social enterprise Empatheyes, demonstrates the new VR visual impairment simulator to Stephen Ellis, Innovation Manager at Innovation Factory. This new system, developed in Belfast, will be showcased in the United States at Vision 2023, a major international conference on Low Vision Rehabilitation. The aim of the system is to let those supporting adults

Ability Cafe

Ability Cafe at Belfast Castle creates 10 new jobs for disabled people

By | Business, Charities, Corporate

Ten new jobs have been created for people with disabilities after the opening of a new Ability Cafe at the historic Belfast Castle.

The café was opened by Usel (Ulster Supported Employment Limited), a leading provider of disability employment support for adults with a disability or health condition to enter and sustain employment.

Ability Café, located in the castle’s cellar, offers hot drinks, breakfast, lunch and snacks, all while providing supported employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The cafe represents a first-hand example of how employing people with disabilities can benefit an employer, the workforce, and customers.

Usel, which is a social enterprise, provides adults with disabilities with accredited training in health and safety, food preparation, kitchen hygiene and customer service, before giving them practical work experience. The Ability Cafe provides a safe and supported environment for employees to develop the skills and confidence they need, to progress into employment in the hospitality sector. This benefits and strengthens the local economy, which is currently facing recruitment difficulties.

One of the café’s new staff members is Noel Clayton, who is being supported through Usel’s WorkableNI programme to help get people into work.

Noel said: “I am delighted to be working at Ability Café. I really enjoy meeting new people and working as part of the team. I am excited to further develop my skills, learn more about the café and engage with customers.”

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Ryan Murphy, said: “I’m delighted to see this new cafe now in place, not only because it provides a fantastic addition to our venue here at Belfast Castle, but more importantly because it will provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Belfast is made stronger by the diversity of its people and, as a council, we’re committed to creating a more inclusive and equitable society. One of the ways we’re doing this is by providing opportunities within our wider estate for social enterprises to work with us and deliver positive economic and social benefits for our communities. Ability Cafe is the latest addition, joining cafes already successfully operating at Belfast Zoo and Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, as well as in City Hall and some of our leisure centres.

“I encourage everyone to come and support this inspiring initiative and wonderful partnership and to enjoy the delicious food and welcoming environment at our fantastic Belfast Castle.”

Ability Cafe at Belfast Castle is the fifth cafe location for Usel, which already successfully operate cafes at Belfast Zoo, The Foundry at The Spectrum Centre, The Stables at Lady Dixon Park and at Ballycopeland Windmill.

For more information visit https://www.usel.co.uk/ability-cafe

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Ryan Murphy met some of the team from the new Ability Café at Belfast Castle. The café is run by social enterprise Usel, a leading provider of disability employment support for adults with a disability or health condition to enter and sustain employment. The café has created ten new jobs and is open daily.

Kenneth Branagh encourages children to get writing at Into Film Festival

By | Creative Industries, Film

Director Kenneth Branagh officially opened Northern Ireland’s Into Film Festival at a special screening of his new movie Belfast by encouraging young people to tell their own stories.

“Everyone has a unique, special story that’s just theirs. And it’s important to me that those stories get told, because everyone is different and that’s what makes things interesting,” he said to 200 young people and their teachers at the special screening of his new movie based on his own childhood.

The Into Film Festival runs until the end of the month at schools across Northern Ireland with a series of free screenings and resources such as the Story Builder writing tool available all year round.

Kenneth Branagh, who is Northern Ireland Ambassador for Into Film, was joined by young actors Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie at the first festival event of 2021 held at Movie House Cityside in Belfast. They spoke to young people from Hazelwood Integrated College, Belfast High School, Ashfield Girls School and South West Regional College.

Into Film, an education charity, is encouraging young people to follow Kenneth Branagh’s advice and tell their stories using a new resource Story Builder, a writing tool developed by the team in Northern Ireland.

Story Builder captures pupils’ imaginations and allows them space to create and build their own stories as if developing a film. This is a free resource, which allows pupils to work alone or collaboratively to develop characters, build their story arc, decide on settings and design their very own movie posters.

“Northern Ireland people are renowned for amazing story-telling and Kenneth Branagh encouraged the students to express themselves. Every person has a story to tell and our team developed Story Builder to help young people find their voice and get their stories out into the world. Story Builder is now being used in schools across Northern Ireland and teachers have found it a real asset in the classroom,” explained Into Film Project Delivery Officer Naomh Cullen.

With direct links to cross-curricular skills and literacy goals, Story Builder is educational, fun and has opportunities for both teachers and pupils to receive awards and prizes.

“Kenneth Branagh used his own experiences as a young boy to write Belfast. We want to encourage young people across Northern Ireland to be our next great story teller and Story Builder gives them a place to start,” said Naomh Cullen added.

The Into Film Festival is hosted by Into Film, a film education charity supported by the BFI through National Lottery funding and made possible with support from Cinema First and the UK film industry. The National Lottery raises £36 million each week for good causes across the UK.

Into Film offers a free virtual visit to every school to get them started with Story Builder.  For more information email naomh.cullen@intofilm.org or go to www.intofilm.org/storybuilder

Blow-dry the cobwebs away at Theatre at The Mill’s new hairy Christmas cracker

By | Comedy, Creative Industries, Theatre

Caroline Curran renews her festive partnership with Theatre at The Mill with Jingle All the Hairspray – a riotous, razor sharp tale of fun and friendship set in Scary Bears Hair and Beauty Salon.

After ten years of starring in the Mossley Mill theatre’s Christmas spectacular, this is Caroline’s first solely written show, stuffed full of madcap comedy, twists and turns and original songs.

This Christmas ‘hairytale’ has loads of topical references to Brexit, the NI Protocol, Covid-19 and lateral flow tests, Love Island, East Enders, and the QVC Shopping Channel. The show is full of adults-only laughs, drama and a few tears in a glitzy, glamour-filled setting.

Having set previous shows in a hospital ward, a pub, and a credit union, Jingle All the Hairspray tackles the hairdressing salon where Northern Ireland’s women get the chance to bare their souls, gossip and occasionally tear strips out of each other.

Caroline said: “Having decided to set the show in a Hairdressing and Beauty Salon, I spent the last few months visiting places and watching the customers.  I have a lot of friends who are hairdressers or owners of beauty salons and they all tell their own stories. Christmas is their busiest time of the year and it is not just the curling tongs that can get heated!”

The show has nine original, highly entertaining new songs belted out by the cast including Jolene O’Hara, lead vocalist in Lush! Classical and a member of the Songbirds Duo with sister Philippa. The cast also features Mary Moulds and Patrick Buchanan.

Claire Connor plays the central role of Scary Bears owner, Ali, who is desperately trying to get her place ready before a visit from the inspector of the HAIRS Guide. Ali has inherited the salon from her late mum and wants to fulfil her dream of getting a five-star review before she decides on her future. But her no-good husband Dave is encouraging her to sell up so he can sail around the world on his boat.

A cast of colourful characters bring the hilarious script to life but amid the comedy there are tears with poignant scenes in tribute to Caroline’s best friend, co-writer and long-time collaborator, Julie Maxwell who tragically died in August 2019.

Caroline explained: “I added a scene where one of the customers describes the turmoil of losing their best friend. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster writing my first show alone. It features the type of wacky and weird comedy that I wrote with Julie, but it was difficult because I would usually have someone there to sound out what was funny and what wasn’t.”

Bringing some order to the Christmas Chaos is Minnie the Inspector from the HAIRS Guide. It is clear to Minnie that Ali loves her business and her customers, but will she award her the HAIRS Guide’s illustrious five stars? And will Ali sell Scary Bears and waltz off with Dave on his boat?

“I want the audience at Theatre at the Mill to enjoy an edge-of-the-seat, fun-filled ride. This is a feelgood, all-in Christmas makeover,” Caroline added.

Jingle All the Hairspray: A Christmas Hairytale will be on stage from December 7-31. For details on how to book tickets go to: https://theatreatthemill.com/