What started as a kind gesture between two friends has grown into a game-changing move by a toy company to make its masterpieces more inclusive.
Lego has announced its new pilot program,"Lego Audio and Braille Building Instructions," which involves tapping artificial intelligence technology to make its play experience more accessible for those with vision impairment.
It was Matthew Shifrin, an entrepreneur who was born blind, who inspired the toy maker to ensure that those who have vision impairment could build Lego play sets like everyone else.
"When you're able to build something out of a Lego set, then you as a blind child, you are able to understand it completely," he told TODAY. "You've built it."
Shifrin says that's because when building a Lego structure, it gives a better sense of what it looks like and how it is laid out and constructed.
"For blind people, Lego sets act as miniature 3D substitutes for real-life buildings in lieu of two-dimensional photographs," Shifrin said on the company's website. "Lego bricks allow me to see things that are impossible to explore by touch, such as the arches of a Middle Eastern palace or the towers of the London Tower Bridge."
It was a dear friend of Shivrin's who first helped him learn how to build Lego sets.
“I had a friend, Lilya, who would write down all the building steps for me so that I could upload them into a system that allowed me to read the building steps on a Braille reader through my fingers," Shifrin said. "She learned Braille to engage with me and support my Lego passion, and then spent countless hours translating Lego instructions into Braille.”
"She thought that I as a blind person should be able to do everything that sighted kids can do, and so she made the first set of text based instructions," he told TODAY. "She named every single Lego piece that was being used in the set and that really opened up the world to me."
But tragedy struck in 2017 when Lilya passed away, inspiring Shifrin to honor her memory by "ensuring others benefited from her idea of creating Lego building instructions for those with no or limited sight."
He soon connected with Lego's Creative Play Lab to make building instructions available to other visually impaired fans. The company developed four sets using software to translate the visual building instructions to text based descriptions for braille and audio instructions.
"When you hear about someone like Matt, it's just so touching and it just really brings so much purpose to what we're doing at Lego," Fenella Charity, Creative Director of Lego Group, told TODAY.
In a statement on the company's website, she added: “Matthew’s story demonstrates the power of Lego play. It brings people together, helps to build confidence and sparks creativity. It has been an honor to work with Matthew, his passion and energy are truly inspiring. But most importantly his project will help visually impaired children around the world experience the same joy of building and pride of creation that all our fans feel."
Available in English as a free service for all through the accessible website, there are four instructions available. Consumers can either choose to hear audio instructions using their screen reader or with audio, or alternatively choose to read the instructions using a Braille reader. Depending on feedback on the four pilot instructions, which will be collected until the end of 2019, Lego hopes to launch more audio and braille instructions in 2020.
"I hope it really engages blind children and shows them that they can build, they can do this themselves and it teaches them about the world around them," Shifrin told TODAY. "But I also want them to feel that there's no stopping them from achieving whatever they want to achieve."