In recent years, several innovative advances have emerged at the hands of tech companies and university programs. While all technological breakthroughs can send a current of electric excitement running through communities at large, techies, inventors, accessibility advocates, and consumers, in particular, have every reason to celebrate as accessible assistive technologies roll out in unprecedented numbers. The right assistive technology may be the difference between some individuals gaining access to the internet, career-advancing software, social media platforms, and virtual recreation tools or lagging behind their tech-savvy counterparts. As such, the advances certainly warrant the hype. If you’re interested in watching the future of digital accessibility unfold, keep your eyes on these five groundbreaking innovations in assistive technology.
While senior citizens are often wrongfully associated with technology incompetency, elderly adults have embraced the digital age in more significant numbers than ever. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, telehealth medical appointments and virtual socializing evolved into adaptive tools that many older adults had no choice but to navigate. In the post-COVID era, gone will be the days where grandma and grandpa can turn their backs to web surfing or socializing via Facebook.
Of course, when it comes to technology use, interest isn’t everything. Many seniors are eager to learn but experience difficulties operating computers and phones on account of disabilities or health-related impairments. Since a significant percentage of elderly individuals suffer from visual and hearing impairments, and an even larger number faces a learning curve that a lifelong lack of exposure to technology inflicts, many older adults feel barred from using a computer.
Enter senior-friendly computers like these. Assistive computers designed for use by elderly adults offer large touch-screen monitors, simple text zoom features, and highly user-friendly applications. With the help of technology tailored to older adults’ needs, bridging the digital gap between technoid teens and struggling seniors are possible.
Assistance devices for visually impaired users
While the Amazon Echo dot impressed many upon its release, its new “Show and Tell” feature boasts a life-changing accessibility option for its blind or low vision users. Those who are visually impaired can hold an object to a built-in camera. Upon asking, “Alexa, what am I holding?” the Echo dot will verbally identify the object. The Echo executes object recognition features through advanced computer vision technologies that Amazon developed to assist with visual accessibility, early childhood learning, shopping, and more.
Naturally, Amazon isn’t the only corporation to incorporate object identification into its accessibility model. Apps like iDentifi, which employ the customer’s cellphone camera to identify objects, are growing in popularity, and Microsoft’s Seeing AI interprets and narrates an individual’s surroundings.
Accessible gaming tools
Studies estimate that over 170 million adults in the United States regularly enjoy playing video games. Unfortunately, while the number may seem large, a disappointing amount of teens and adults with mobility-related disadvantages are still missing out. Video games that ask players to participate by operating complex hand-held tools or require verbal communication with other players present challenges to those who may not move their hands, fingers, or mouths quickly, comfortably, or effectively.
Since those with sensory-motor or fine-motor disabilities may struggle to enjoy video games that require manual dexterity to operate hand-held gaming controls, Microsoft set out to develop a suite of video games driven by eye movement only. As such, Microsoft’s “Eyes First” game suite was born. Employing technologies like Windows Eye Control, the games use eye-tracking devices to allow for hands-free gaming. Most eye-tracking gaming tools track eye movement by emitting infrared light and measuring the eyes’ reflection. Some “eye first” technologies enable users to use eye movement to supplement and complement hand-held controllers.
Sign language-speaking robots
Over six percent of the world’s population struggles with a disabling hearing loss of some kind, but the proportions of sing language interpreters leave something to be desired. When a team of graduate students at the University of Antwerps noticed the need to compensate for a global shortage of sign language interpreters, they developed a robotic one. The engineers’ humanoid robot hand can communicate in highly accurate sign language after scanning and reading written text. Individuals who are deaf or hearing impaired can use the robot to read the text and convert what it has read into signed words, letters, and numbers.
Following suit, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, developed a low-cost alternative to sign language-translating gloves, which tend to be highly expensive otherwise. While the team hopes to one day implement its visual recognition features in virtual reality games or programs, the robotic gloves currently convert American Sign Language letters into text with the help of a computer or smartphone. Once the hard-of-hearing communicator puts on the gloves and signs, sensors on the finger pads process the American Sign Language words. Then, the gloves convert the words or phrases to text and send it in a message that appears on a smartphone or computer screen.
Social interaction can pose a challenge for children and adults who identify on the autism spectrum and contend with developmental or learning delays. While all individuals on the autism spectrum possess unique strengths and setbacks, autistic children and teens tend to note that social interactions feel less intuitive and more confusing. Challenges surrounding facial recognition and the ability to make eye contact can make attempts to perceive emotion-related nonverbal cues difficult. For those who misunderstand facial expressions and body language, making friends, connecting with peers, navigating social situations, and maintaining professional relationships can feel like an impossible feat.
Fortunately, companies like Brain Power recognized the opportunity to assist and have since developed smart glasses, encouraging users to practice socially interactive behaviors while wearing the glasses. The technology measures eye contact maintenance and rewards the user with points each time the user maintains eye contact for a socially appropriate amount of time. Users can also win virtual recognition like stars or stickers under the condition that they accurately intuit the emotion associated with another person’s facial expressions.
There’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to accessibility. Still, as groundbreaking assistive technologies continue to blast off, a larger spectrum of individuals can access the knowledge, connection, and creative potential offered by digital tools (and that’s something to celebrate). Luckily, the end is nowhere in sight.