This developer wanted to make his passion for music more accessible to everyone — so he made a smart guitar for the visually impaired
Music has always been a big part of Joe Birch’s life, but he also grew up understanding that it isn’t equally accessible to everyone. His mother and grandmother live with a genetic condition that causes tunnel vision, leaving him well aware of the difficulties that learning to play an instrument presents for the visually impaired. To help people share his passion, he created Chord Assist, which gives instructions on how to play the guitar through braille, a speaker, or visuals on a screen.
Joe is an Android developer who joined the Google Developers Experts programme: a global community of highly experienced technology experts, influencers, and thought leaders who share their expertise on different aspects of tech through various events and meetups. He first got into the programme at university, and it’s part of what inspired him and gave him the confidence to tackle a mix of technologies he wasn’t familiar with. “It was a bit overwhelming at first, as there was a lot of hardware involved,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but I just started and then tackled issues as they came up.”
In 2017, he created a news reader that allowed the user to read trending news in braille. ""Then I started thinking about when I learned to play the guitar, and how tough it would have been if I was blind,"" says Joe.
Chord Assist started as a project on Actions on Google a platform that allows developers to create additional commands for unique applications. Joe adapted it for use as a smart guitar, allowing users to request to learn how to play a chord, getting feedback from an LED display, braille, or sound.
For Chord Assist, testing is a crucial next step, as Joe hopes the technology can also help deaf or mute people with their musical journey — one reason he’s included options for people who can’t speak out loud to the guitar. “Google helped out with my knowledge of how to use Actions,” he says. “And they also offered me help from their accessibility testers, people who would help to test it. Last year, I was going to try to push the project forward and ideally test it in schools, but then 2020 threw a spanner in the works.”
Joe has already released the code and a step-by-step guide to building the smart guitar for anyone who wants to make their own. This year, he hopes to launch the Chord Assist Action, or the software part of the project, on the Google Play Store so that other people can use it with their own guitars.
He’s already won a Lovie Award (created to recognise the best of the European internet), and is gaining interest in coding circles. Getting the technology into people’s hands is the next step. “I love seeing people pushing the boundaries and breaking the expectations of others,” says Joe. “That’s what inspires me.”