Local Firm ViewPlus Opens World of Science to Blind
Corvallis has a unique business in its midst, and it’s been here for more than 25 years – a company that makes Braille printers and embossers so blind people can feel more than just words on the page.
“Our technology opens the world of possibilities to the blind in STEAM – science, tech, engineering, art and math,” says Dan Gardner, CEO of ViewPlus, located on SW Airport Avenue in southwest Corvallis. Gardner, who joined the family business in 2015, is the son of John Gardner, emeritus professor of physics at Oregon State University, who led the team that invented the technology.
John Gardner’s Vision Came From Blindness
Dan Gardner shared his dad’s story that led to these special printers. John Gardner was born in Mississippi with severe vision problems. According to the OSU Oral History interview, he suffered from “both glaucoma and a congenital malformation that rendered him blind in one eye and with restricted vision in the other.” Despite this, John Gardner went on to attend college at Rice University and then a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Illinois.
The OSU Oral History interview wrote, “After six years as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, Gardner joined the OSU Physics department in 1973, where he established himself as an international authority on a technique called perturbed angular correlation spectroscopy.” Dan Gardner said he was 4 years old when they moved to Corvallis.
In 1988, Dan Gardner said, his dad had an eye operation that didn’t go as planned. The OSU Oral History interview more specifically explained, “Gardner underwent what was believed to be a routine operation to help relieve the symptoms of the glaucoma that had plagued him for his entire life. To the surprise of many, his eye reacted negatively to what had been understood to be a simple procedure, and he emerged from the surgery having completely lost his sight.”
Professor Gardner continued to teach; however, in physics, having graphs and charts read to you doesn’t offer the nuance needed to understand the data. Instead of letting this become an obstacle, he decided he needed to do things differently. He shifted his focus, which led to his vision of, as written in the OSU interview, “improving the conditions faced by low- and no-sight workers in the sciences by developing technologies that would enable scientific research by the blind.”
Gardner established a university-based team to work on this research, got funding from the National Science Foundation and, in 1996, they developed and patented a new, high-resolution embossing technology that works with Braille printers. Unable to get a manufacturer to license the technology, Gardner and his wife founded ViewPlus. They licensed the technology from OSU, paying royalties for 20 years. The first product, an embosser built upon a dot matrix printer, was launched in 2000.
According to the OSU Oral History interview, “In 2001, Gardner retired from OSU to devote his full energies to this fledgling company. Since then, ViewPlus has grown steadily and now is recognized as a world leader in assistive technologies, specializing in Braille printers, Braille translation, tactile graphics, tactile-audio systems and audio graphing.”
Business Building in Corvallis
After leaving OSU to build the ViewPlus business, the Gardners rented space with the Business Enterprise Center, The Bec, on Ninth Street. In 2012, the Gardners moved ViewPlus near the airport. As ViewPlus grew, they eventually took over the entire Airport Avenue building, where they remain today.
Dan Gardner said networking has been beneficial to growing the business. As a Benton County start-up, they became involved in the Willamette Innovator’s Network Expo, which shows off all the local inventions. He also mentioned that Oregon Entrepreneur Network and Vistage, a CEO networking group, have been vital to expanding their company.
Gardner has made it a company policy to source things locally when possible. Next door to them is Oregon Rubber Mills, which supplies rubber to other manufacturers of products ViewPlus buys. Around the corner on SW Third Avenue is Ram-Z Fab, a machine and fabrication shop that makes some parts of the printers, while RelianceCM on SE Eastgate Circle manufactures circuit boards. Another nearby Corvallis supplier Gardner mentioned is Plastech Inc., an injection molding company, located on SW Hout Street.
The offices are streamlined and set up efficiently. Gardner shared how Richard Graff, a manufacturing consultant who already had trained in lean manufacturing practices, took advantage of the time during the COVID-19 epidemic to further simplify the company’s practices. Gardner said his daughter, while attending Crescent Valley High School virtually during the pandemic, created new production manuals to help train employees on how to use the various stations.
Like many other businesses, ViewPlus faced issues during the pandemic. Gardner said the Corvallis-Benton County Economic Development Department was helpful not only in delivering Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but in advising how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) grants through the Small Business Administration (SBA). Gardner says his parents were on the computer right at the beginning to be one of the first to get the applications in.
The PPP grants helped make payroll, while the SBA Emergency Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program set them up for the future by allowing them to borrow money to purchase inventory on hand and invest in new product development. As teachers and students stayed home, many took their ViewPlus Braille graphic printers home too, and learned how valuable the printers are in their everyday life.
As one grateful client wrote in a testimonial“If you want to be reminded about the difference you are making, please know that my daughter, who is 8, has been flourishing under homeschool, thanks to your products. I’ve been able to customize her curriculum to suit her perfectly.
“Before Covid, I had zero knowledge of Braille or Braille tech. Once I realized how little my fully blind daughter was actually learning in remote school, I had to catch up post-haste. Your products have been a godsend. They are amazingly user-friendly for lay people like me. I wouldn’t be able to homeschool my daughter without your Tiger translator, Braille embosser, and Braille readers/displays. So, A MILLION THANKS from a grateful customer! Tim Fahlberg, math teacher.”
“Our tactile graphics have gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have,’” Gardner said. “Our business is transitioning into profitability – without grants – for the second going into the third year.” Having done the lean manufacturing process, connecting with excellent networks and having good employees – beyond family – have been integral to their current success, he explained.
Gardner boasted the company’s employees like to work there for several reasons. One is they enjoy being a part of a purpose-driven company that makes a positive difference in the world. Another is the emphasis he places on implementing, as he says, “how to actually make a corporation be people-centric,” with options such as flexible hours and being whole-life friendly. Another point he makes is the excellent male-female ratio of employees, which is atypical of most in the assistive technology manufacturing industry.
Three years ago, ViewPlus partnered with American Printing House (APH) – a non-profit funded by the federal government, to provide Braille textbooks and equipment to blind children in each state. This partnership helped expand their key kindergarten-to-high school market. Reaching kids before they are 10 years old is important because Braille can be challenging to learn and often harder for adults since their fingertips aren’t as sensitive.
Gardner says ViewPlus is passionate about reaching kids while they are still imaginative, creative and interested in exploring subjects beyond words – science, tech, engineering, art and math. In the United States, many kids are not always “just blind” but have comorbidities that lead to blindness or low vision. ViewPlus technology evolves to help in many areas.
For example, the “VP SpotDot” uses Hewlett-Packard color inks that can help sighted people understand the same charts and graphs that the blind can create with the technology. HP, with its local campus also based in Corvallis, helped fund the research to develop this color ink and Braille printer combination.
Software that makes existing technology like Adobe, Word, and Excel accessible to the visually impaired is currently in development, and their next product will be a PDF integration that corrects 40-year-old technology, making it easier for teachers to access the volumes of information stored the old way and not have to reinvent the wheel to use it.
While the stated ViewPlus mission is “Empowering people worldwide by making information accessible through innovative, inclusive technology solutions,” Gardner feels his mission is to help flip the switch in people’s attitudes that may include negative views such as the blind and visually impaired are not as valued or as well-supported in much of the world. “I want to make the blind person the hero because they have technology and accessibilities allowing them to contribute to society at their full potential.”