How LabVoice + AWS are expanding accessibility in research labs

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As a PhD student in biophysics at Yale, Sara Siwiecki spends a lot of time in the lab working on the small details, like peering through a microscope or managing inventories of the chemicals she needs for experiments. But she often encounters obstacles due to outdated lab and equipment designs that don’t accommodate her visual impairment. Opaque containers that make it difficult to read measurements, general lab-wide disorganization, and tiny text are just a few of the challenges she confronts during a typical day.

At Brown, PhD student Gabriel Monteiro da Silva has spent hours tracking down substances in the lab. It’s routine but crucial work: lab chemicals can be expensive, and if they hang around past their expiration date, they can become safety risks. Keeping track of dozens of compounds is made especially stressful by lab design that doesn’t account for Gabriel’s attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Though their personal experiences in the lab were different, both Sara and Gabriel came to the same conclusion: research labs are seriously lacking when it comes to accessibility. It’s a pervasive problem not limited to one institution or type of disability.

That’s why they decided to collaborate with LabVoice—a digital lab assistant platform designed specifically for the research lab. Working together with the LabVoice team, they developed an inventory search solution that allows users to record information, like chemical location and amount, and then retrieve it later entirely through verbal prompts. Instead of hunting for test tubes and scouring drawers, scientists can ask LabVoice about a substance and instantly get the info they need. This can relieve major stressors related to a lack of accommodations for mobility, memory, sight, or other types of disabilities.

Streamlining lab work for scientists to do their best work

“I thought that LabVoice was just super cool as a concept,” says Sara. “It’s something that’s very useful and was not necessarily designed in the context of accessibility, but is super applicable to accessibility—which is kind of the most ideal situation that most people with disabilities want: something that is useful for everyone and is also applicable and useful to people with disabilities.”

Lab research also often requires significant amounts of repetitive, non-scientific work. Some studies suggest that up to 50% of researchers’ time is spent on administrative tasks. That can include things like preparing data for ingestion and preparing reports on work already completed—all tasks that can be streamlined with LabVoice.

More importantly, though, is the lost time and frustrations that accrue thanks to the reality of inaccessible lab environments. Due to various factors (like lack of funding), many labs are not equipped with up-to-date accommodations and fail to account for the diversity of disability experiences.

“There are labs that have existed for 60-70 years without any of the additions to accessibility that we have seen in shopping malls, doctor’s offices, buildings,” says Gabriel. “Because academia is so insulated and the people doing these kinds of upgrades—they either don’t consider it a priority, or even if they do, they usually are not properly funded for that.”

This requires scientists to work regularly in spaces that aren’t designed for their needs. By bringing a comprehensive AI voice assistant into these environments, LabVoice makes significant strides for accessibility in the research sciences. It empowers scientists to focus on their research rather than on accessibility gaps, routine chores, and administrative duties.

Amazon Lex and Amazon Polly help deliver a complete digital lab assistant experience

LabVoice is available as both a smart device and a mobile app. The digital assistant functions similarly to a smart speaker—think Amazon Echo for scientists—and can facilitate note-taking and data throughout the lab. It also offers features like the option to take photos, record videos, and scan barcodes, in addition to guiding a user through scientific processes (standard operating procedures (SOPs), protocols, checklists, etc). LabVoice links with existing lab software and equipment, allowing scientists to use instruments and record data hands-free. Its ease of use and connectivity with lab infrastructure can enhance regulatory and safety protocol compliance. And it’s a boon to accessibility.

All of this is made possible thanks to LabVoice’s integration with AWS. According to Steve McCoy, Head of Sales at LabVoice, LabVoice’s implementation of AWS services goes beyond cloud storage and computing—the AWS platform is fundamental to LabVoice’s operations.

In particular, LabVoice relies on conversational AI service Amazon Lex and text-to-speech software Amazon Polly to deliver a complete digital lab assistant experience. Steve explains that the team uses these tools as a foundation on which they develop additions and extensions that are science specific.

AWS’s expansive dataset also allows the team to continually refine the LabVoice experience. “By using AWS as the backbone of what we’re doing, we’re able to access pools of millions and millions of [users of] these products,” Steve says. This gives the LabVoice team a massive sample size of voices and vocal sounds to pull from as it works to improve the platform’s voice recognition capabilities. That data is critical to improving LabVoice’s ability to identify terms that are encountered regularly in the lab but may be uncommon elsewhere, like chemical compounds or scientific devices.

Steve believes that the future for LabVoice + AWS is a seamless experience that captures the entirety of a scientist’s stream of consciousness as they work. As the tech continues to develop, a researcher could “speak in real time with their observations, their notes, their measurements, and then use what AWS offers to just turn that into something that is automatically entered into their electronic lab notebook.”

These developments would be impactful for the day-to-day work of many researchers in labs that lack proper accommodations. “Obviously, academia is what millions of people do just in the US alone,” says Gabriel, so accessibility issues in the lab affect far more than “just a niche of people.”

“Looking forward to the future in general for science, I think things could be significantly improved and make everyone’s lives easier by implementing things like LabVoice,” says Sara. “There’s just endless amounts of opportunities that could come out of it.”

The technology could assist workers in a wide array of fields, from agriculture to marine biology. Whatever the industry, LabVoice will be an asset in allowing people like Sara, Gabriel, and their peers to continue working on the solutions of the future.

Megan Crowley

Megan Crowley

Megan Crowley is a Senior Technical Writer on the Startup Content Team at AWS. With an earlier career as a high school English teacher, she is driven by a relentless enthusiasm for contributing to content that is equal parts educational and inspirational. Sharing startups’ stories with the world is the most rewarding part of her role at AWS. In her spare time, Megan can be found woodworking, in the garden, and at antique markets.

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