Matter: Enriching disabled people's experience of technology

Assistive technology news, policy and events. Clive, smiling at the camera

DispATches is written by Clive Gilbert, freelance research consultant and specialist writer in public policy, social affairs and technology.

Born with cerebral palsy, Clive is an extensive user of assistive technology and has first-hand experience of the transformative potential that technology can bring to the lives of disabled people. 

One of the biggest challenges in the assistive technology world is summed up by one unwieldy word: interoperability.

The ability for technologies made by different companies to interact and work with one another is one of the basic building blocks of most of the technologies we use. Without the willingness of manufacturers to allow their devices to connect to the products of other manufacturers or share information across networks, most of the innovations of the last few decades would not have been possible.

But interoperability, or the lack of it, is still a frustrating fact of life for many people who rely on assistive technology, rearing its dispiriting head when, for example, an important piece of technical software doesn't work with the user's preferred screenreader or an adaptive computer mouse can be used with Windows but not on a Mac. In 2020, the Food and Drugs Administration in the United States stepped in to introduce a rule requiring mobile phone makers to test and rate their wireless handsets’ hearing aid compatibility.

There has always been tension in the technology industry between the benefits to customers of making products interoperable and the commercial advantages that often accrue to companies powerful enough to shun rivals.

A smarter approachA person using a smart tablet to control their home appliances.

The growing popularity of smart home technology has exposed some of the contradictions of such winner-takes-all business models. The likes of Apple, Google, and Amazon have spent the last few years vying for the primacy of our homes by building product ecosystems that revolve around their own hubs, voice assistants, and apps, and keeping those of their main competitors out.

This strategy has helped tech giants protect their profits and set the pace and direction of innovation. But it has also constrained choices for customers who might prefer the aesthetics or features of a smart gadget that can't easily be controlled with their existing set-up.

A major new initiative launched earlier this month tries to call a truce in the squabble over smart supremacy. The Connected Standard Alliance - a group of over 170 smart home technology companies including Apple, Google, Amazon, and Samsung - gathered in Amsterdam to showcase Matter, a new connectivity standard for smart devices.

Matter promises to end compatibility issues between products from different brands by setting out how devices can be connected to each other. It specifies how companies should build their tech in order to comply with the new standard and establishes a new certification process to verify that they have met it.

In the future, certified devices will sport a logo to help consumers identify them. The Connected Standard Alliance says that more than 130 Matter-certified gadgets like TVs, lights, and thermostats are set to hit the market over the next few weeks and months.

Make Matter matter

Matter has the potential to enrich disabled people's experience of technology. People tied to particular technologies could see their preferred set-up automatically become compatible with a growing range of smart products. The new standard might also encourage assistive technology providers to develop their own Matter-certified products as well as new third-party solutions to make connected devices made by smart technology companies more accessible.
The new standard still has a lot to prove before it can be hailed as the solution to all our smart home interoperability woes. For one thing, Matter doesn't cover every type of smart device yet. Products such as cameras, energy monitors, and robot vacuum cleaners are due to be added in a future update to the protocol.
There is nothing to compel tech companies to make every smart product Matter-compliant. When it comes to a smart hub, and the settings that allow manufacturers to decide how their products interact with other devices, the early signs are that most are reluctant to relinquish all control over their systems.
Matter may turn out to be the tech industry's first response to a wave of regulations and laws aimed at countering closed product ecosystems. Governments are increasingly alive to the threat that the ability of larger companies to dictate the terms of business through their all-powerful platforms could pose to healthy and competitive markets. For example, the European Union’s new Digital Markets Act will scrutinise the behaviour of 'gatekeepers' more closely.
Matter is a rare opportunity for the technology industry to work together to get ahead of regulatory curbs. Will they take it?

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Further resources 

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