Developing an Accessible Timer

Sitting beside one of my students in the very early days of the school year, the dreaded question presented itself for what must have been the hundredth time that day:

“Is it almost time for lunch?”

Taking a deep breath, I answered in a calm and even tone. “Lunch will be at 11:30. That is in 20 minutes, but we need to finish math class first.” My student looked satisfied with the answer, but I knew I would be answering that question again in the near future. Time is a difficult concept for many of my students, and it is not hard to understand why. It requires complex abstract thinking skills to fully understand how time works, and how numbers are used to represent periods of time. For many young children and individuals with disabilities, the skills required to make sense of clocks and timers are not developed to the point that they can fully understand daily routines and schedules.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that is built around the concept of time, and this can lead to stressful and frustrating daily routines for those who don’t have a firm grasp on it. Imagine going through your daily life with no idea of what time it was; nothing to signal when to go to work, or eat a meal, or go to bed. Transitions between daily activities would take you completely by surprise, or you could end up missing them entirely. With those things in mind, I set out to develop a timer that was accessible to everyone. Here is a brief glimpse into the development process:

Above is one of the first prototypes of what would eventually become the Lumino. At this point in development, it had only a single glowing LED, but the base principle was there: the light shifted from green to red gradually, nonverbally communicating the passage of time. Obviously this is nowhere close to a finished product, so I put pen to paper and dreamed up this design:

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While it isn’t the most beautiful artwork, it served as a benchmark to build on, and combined with the development of permanent circuit boards, became the first functional prototype of the Lumino. After many hours of code, hardware development, 3D modeling, and brainstorming, the first physical Lumino was complete:

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As you can tell from the case, this happened long before we came up with the Abilio name. However, for the first time, we had a physical item to test. It was operated by twisting the top and pressing it like a big button to make selections. We had a circuit board professionally manufactured, put it all together, and turned it on for the first time, awaiting the bright green glow and flawless function we had been dreaming of during the countless hours of development we put into it.

It was absolutely horrible.

When twisting the top, it made a horrible grinding sound. Pressing it like a button worked sometimes, but more often than not, it didn’t work at all. The whole thing felt delicate, and worst of all, it was incredibly hard to put together. After tons of work, we were left with an almost unusable prototype. Confronted with this failure, we went back to the drawing board again. And again. And again and again and again and again.

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Thanks to the use of a 3D printer, we were able to make changes, print out the case, test fit everything, identify changes, and repeat the process. Over the course of many redesigns, we reimagined the whole thing. We added a new lighting method that conveys time even more clearly than it did initially with the color based system. We removed the old display and “twist and push” design, instead opting for a crisp OLED display and five responsive push buttons. After plenty of iterations, we finally reached the moment of truth. We once again assembled all of the parts and turned it on, hopeful that this time we had gotten it right.

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Success! In terms of form and functionality, we finally have a complete timer that can be used in classrooms, homes, and hundreds of other settings. Even though our 3D printed prototypes are robust enough to handle day to day life in the classroom, we want to take it a step further in order to build the ultimate accessible timer.

Please consider contributing to our crowdfunding campaign by purchasing a Lumino of your own, or by donating one to a local school. We need your help to have injection molds made so that we can produce the Lumino with a quality injection molded casing that can withstand the damage that comes with being owned by a parent or teacher. Campaign details will be available soon on our social media pages. Please follow us using the links below to stay up to date!

Parker Duwelius