Visual communications professor just made social gatherings less awkward

We have all experienced that awkward moment when we see someone we’ve met before at a social gathering, but we can’t remember their name. We spend a few panicked moments scouring our memory only to come up blank and end up addressing them as, “Hey…. you.” Almost everyone with less than a photographic memory can identify with this horrifying social blunder because it’s been unavoidable.

But what if it didn’t have to be?

Renée Stevens, associate chair of visual communications, has designed tagAR, an augmented reality app that displays a name tag above other registered users’ heads, allowing for smoother social interactions. Stevens created the award-winning app to help people with dyslexia, for whom remembering names can be a particular challenge. We sat down with Stevens to talk about the app, her passion for accessibility and how her own dyslexia prepared her for the challenges of design.

How did you come up with the idea for tagAR? 

TagAR was created to help those who are dyslexic, which is a challenge that I have tried to overcome my whole life. It’s very difficult for me to remember people’s names, and pronounce people’s names as well, so that’s where the idea was born. I really wanted it to be available to anyone because we all forget names, but the underlying concept was for those who have trouble going between auditory and visual translation.

How did you develop tagAR? 

First I came up with the concept and then the design, but it was a little bit ahead of the technology. So I started [working on it] and then I asked a bunch of developers and programmers if they would be able to assist me. They all said, “I don’t know how to do that,” so I said, “Well, nobody does. That’s why it’s fun.” Apparently, I was a little more ambitious than [the available technology], so the hard part was, there wasn’t really a spot for [the app] to exist in yet.

But every summer, Apple holds an Apple developer conference and I was watching it live [when] they introduced the AR kit… [It’s] a software development kit that works with all iOS devices that would allow augmented reality experiences to be developed. As an Apple developer myself, I was able to get access to it, so I stayed up all night and learned everything I could about how I could do this. I have to give my husband credit because I said, “I have this idea. I think it’s really important that this exists in the world, which it doesn’t, but I don’t know what to do.” And he said, “You should do what you always do… You do it yourself.”

So that’s what I did. I learned a completely new programming language called SWIFT and a new program called Xcode. And 18 months later, the app was released to the Apple Store.

Representation of the app working on a phone, with floating name tags above people's heads.
Screens from the tagAR app.

That sounds like an incredible amount of work. What drove you to create this app? 

My passion is really to assist people with learning challenges. There are so many people who have different needs and experience things in their own unique ways. After going through that my whole life, that is actually what drove me to become a professor. What I love about teaching is that each person has their own strengths, and they each need to learn in their own ways. So anything I can do to provide an opportunity that allows information to become more accessible to a wider range of people and meet their needs drives me to keep going. 

Could you speak to how your passion for design came from a need for accessibility?

Design has the ability to take something really complex and break it down. There’s all these smaller pieces of things, but it’s the way they all work together as a whole and that makes design work. It also fits how our brain works and how we perceive images and messages. I think it was that connection that brought me into design. Augmented reality… is a very accessible medium that includes the full sensory experience, so you’re not limited to just one modality. If you’re designing for print, obviously it is very visual. Augmented or extended reality… are fully immersive experiences that allow multiple modalities to lean on one another. You can see it, but then you may also be able to hear it, or get some kind of synaptic feedback. There’s just multiple ways that the same information can be reinforced to make it most accessible to people with a wide range of needs who would be interested in the information.

How did your dyslexia and the way you process information impact how you approached design?

My whole life I’ve been trying to come up with ways to overcome that challenge [of being dyslexic]. A lot of that is like breaking down something into the little pieces, but the little pieces are really not as important as the whole. I’ve found through sign language and fingerspelling that I could actually take letters, put it to a visual and combine those visuals, and then my brain can form a word. I think it’s that translation that is so important to what design is. You have to take something complicated, break it down and then process it and re-communicate it in a way that makes most sense to a larger group of people. 

What’s in the future for tagAR?

The end goal is for it to be a wearable technology. Right now, you still have to whip your phone out to see the tags, but when the Apple glasses technology comes out, the information should be seamlessly available without the need to call any attention to you.

What has been the reaction to the app from the community you’re trying to serve? And what does that mean to you? 

The app has received multiple design awards. However, to me, the biggest achievement is that it does what it was intended to do. The greatest gift is after I give a talk, I always have a couple of people waiting for me afterwards, and they’re telling me about their dyslexia or their learning challenges, and telling me how my work had played some small part in making their life or a daily task a little bit easier. That’s the whole point of what I’m doing.

Elizabeth Kauma is a senior in the magazine, news and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.