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13 Questions: Mike May

by Ouch Team

1st October 2009

Mike May is a visually impaired business man who lives with his wife and two teenage boys in Davis California. Just your average American family man right? Wrong.

Mike invented accessible GPS, which allows blind people to use satellite navigation, along with a dog or cane, to move around independently in an unknown area. He holds the world record as the fastest blind down-hill speed skier and, not only did he win two gold medals in the 1982 Paralympics, but in 1984, he was the first blind person ever to ski at the regular Olympic games.

But as if all that wasn't enough, Mike is probably most famous for having pioneering stem cell surgery in the year 2000 which, at 46, recovered some of his vision. Oh, and he's great buddies with Stevie Wonder.

We were tired just reading about this guy, we wanted to meet him and managed to catch up with him at the recent Techshare conference in London to ask our 13 questions.
Mike May using GPS on a boat

Uppermost in my mind today is ...

Expanding the availability and opportunity for navigation technology world wide. I started accessible GPS research in 1994 and the first version became available on a laptop in 2000. The Sendero software is now on four platforms, with more to come.

People think I am ...

Blind. I have some vision but, that is the label I 'd choose. I've been blind in my mind since the age of three. I read Braille and use a cane and guide dog. I've not chosen to learn to read print. I can read simple words but it's so tedious.

Not a lot of people know that I ...

Mike May playing guitar as a much younger man
Play guitar and sing. It is a really important part of my alter ego, my artistic side. In college, it was a great way to meet girls.

The best piece of advice I would pass on is ...

There's always a way. The US military had something called the X prize. They offered 10 million dollars to the first company who could develop an autonomous vehicle which could go a hundred miles without a driver. Someone did it. So they set the bar higher, the journey had to include cities etc, somebody has done it. This means that a blind person could possibly drive. The consequence of not believing there is a way is definite failure.
Mike May with Stevie Wonder

I excel at ...

Travelling independently. I hate to book assistance because then I have to wait. I learn the airport, or befriend a seat mate. Even if I haven't talked to them throughout the trip, I will get chummy before landing. When getting a flight, I ask someone to show me the security line and then point to the sign which says Crew Only, and tell them that I can use that door and get them through more quickly. I find the holding rooms humiliating to be in. I understand though that not everyone is able to do it the way I do.

My ideal dinner guest would be ...

Stephen Hawking. He did the zero gravity flight, which is on my bucket list, [list of things to do before I die]. I don't want to think about the 35 thousand feat drop though.

I couldn't live without ...

Being exposed to something or someone new every day. The fun thing about getting older is finding younger people to mentor. For me it's a free ride, I get to vicariously live through them, watching them do the things I did when I was young.

Where do you spend most of your time?

On the road. That's why it is really important to meet new people. I always use my GPS software because I have to have location information one way or another. I want to know my dinner options and just can't depend on a sighted person to tell me without filtering something out.
Mike May with his son Carson

When I come home in the evenings I ...

Spend time with my family. When I'm not travelling, before they go to school in the morning and when they come home from school at 3 or 4, I try to be there, because that is when they are fired up and ready to talk about their day.

What hasn't been invented but should be?

A people finder. I want one. I think it is an app which could be built in a couple of months but I have not done it because of other priorities. At a big conference, I am at a huge professional disadvantage. If everyone had their people finders on and scanning, I would have no problems locating those I need to speak to. Somebody will produce it very soon.
Mike May skiing in the tuck position

The best and worst things about recovering some vision are ...

The best, was fulfilling my curiosity and realising that it wasn't as big a deal as the world would perceive it to be. The worst is seeing a homeless person laying on the street. You can tap them with your cane, or go around them with your dog, but it's not the same as seeing them curled up on a grate and realising that is where they live.

I would like to be remembered as ...

Creating the location information revolution. That is what I've staked my reputation and career on. I like inventing new things, so there is always the temptation to go off on a new direction, but one would like to have an impact.

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