Top Assistive Tech of the Decade

A picture pop the robot AsimoIt has been an incredible decade in the world of technology; machine learning, artificial intelligence, voice assistants, the rise of smartphones and the advent of smart homes.

Within the assistive technology (AT), we have seen some incredible innovations. We have witnessed the move from AT as an afterthoughtto the movement towards accessible-by-design. People realise that by building a product that addresses the barriers faced by some people all of the time, you also address barriers experienced by everyone some of the time.

This decade saw the start of the AbilityNet Tech4good awards, celebrating the very best of the tech world. Then, in more recent years, Techshare Pro; a coming-together of the technology industry to discuss how technology can enhance the lives of disabled people.

So what do we think are the best bits of AT from the last decade?

1. Apple's iPad (2010)

Steve Jobs holding up an iPadAny list of influential tech, influential design or influential assistive technology will include at least one product from Apple. Apple has made accessibility core (pardon the pun) to everything it does do. The iPad has opened up the connected world to a significant number of older people who would not see themselves as ‘computer users’.

Let’s also have an honourable mention for the introduction of Siri in the iPhone 4; still not itself a stand-out example of the emerging genre of the virtual assistant, but it undoubtedly raised the profile of AI in smartphones and opened the door to innovation. More on virtual assistants below.

Find out how to adjust your iPad settings in our free online tool My Computer My Way

2. Tobii Eye-tracking (2012)

At CES 2012 Tobii introduced affordable eye-tracking to the mainstream with devices that integrate with existing screens or are plugged in in the same way as you would a mouse, allowing for mainstream devices to be controlled by people with minimal movement or significant issues with skill. Another honourable mention for Apple’s full voice control in iOS 13 here too, but eye-gaze technology is still a must for so many with both motor and speech challenges that this transformative tech steals the day. 

3. Google Glass (2013)

Prince Charles trying Google GlassArguably Google Glass was a fantastic idea in a world not yet ready for it. Google Glass provided an augmented view of the world around us with in-built voice commands “Ok Glass, take a picture”.

Glass is a lightweight, wearable headset that provides information independent from a mobile phone. Potentially Glass can provide support for people with visual- and physical impairments, and can offer help with dyslexia, autism and other communications issues. 

Glass still exists but a lack of widespread acceptance, mainly down to the disquiet around their potential to film or photograph people without their knowledge or consent, has meant that their value in terms of ‘assistive technology’ is yet to be realised.

Watch this space, however, as we predict that smart glasses will feature large in the years to come. 

4. Amazon Echo (Alexa) (2014)

An amazon echoThe Amazon Echo, or ‘Alexa’ is now part of the family in many households.

News, weather, music, games, podcasts (including dot to dot – the daily Alexa skill demo podcast from AbilityNet’s Robin Christopherson), lighting, heating and other smart home control and the list keeps growing.

Sexy and convenient for everyone, but a real life-changing tech for people with disabilities.

5. Microsoft's Learning tools for Dyslexia (2015)

Microsoft's Learning tools are the result of a 2015 hackathon and is designed with dyslexic users in mind. The suite of tools enables a person to alter the way that text appears on the page; it has an ‘Immersive Reader' mode hides toolbars and other distractions and allows a person to change the font and line spacing without altering the original document. 

It also contains tools to identify sentence components, page tinting options and a tool to aid line focus and tracking.

There is also has a ‘read aloud’ option which highlighting words as they are read. Unsurprisingly, it was a tool that transformed the experience of many people who struggle with reading, from people with dyslexia to children and foreign learners. Still, it also became transformative for proofreading, distraction, tired eyes, and so on.

Woman holding phone to her eyes, the back of her phone is a picture of her eyes6. Be My Eyes (2015)

Hans Jørgen Willberg, a Danish furniture craftsman who is visually impaired, recognised that blind and low-vision people often needed assistance from sighted people to carry out everyday tasks. The Be My Eyes app, as its name suggests, connects blind or low-vision people with sighted volunteers who, using the phones video camera, can assist with the visual aspect of any task.

Tasks could include reading items in the home, assisting with navigation or orientation when out and about or by (more recently) providing specialist help from the helpdesks of Microsoft, Google, Lloyds Bank and even Clear Blue (the pregnancy testing company). 

7. AV1 Robot (2015/6)

The AV1 robot sitting on a table in a classroomThe AV1 robot is a telepresence robot from No Isolation; a company that uses technology to address the issues of isolation and enables children and young adults to participate in everyday school life and socialisation where a condition or long-term illness might have excluded them.

The AV1 robot is slightly shorter than a ruler, has a camera, speaker, microphone, WiFi antenna, 4G connection, and battery and weighs less than a kilogram; light enough to be picked up and carried around and so can always be part of the group.

8. AirPods (2016) 

Apple AirPods shown resting on top of an Apple laptopSymbolising both the miniaturisation of wireless audio tech and the inclusion of enhanced assistive features for those with a range of impairments, Apple’s AirPods embody a revolution in the mainstreaming of sound with an AT twist.

The lack of wires is an excellent convenience for all, especially those with disabilities who may find dealing with tangled wires challenging. Going wireless without the drawbacks of earlier BlueTooth solutions was a significant step forward.

Apple's Airpods set a new bar for audio accessibility. The headphones allow for stereo to be mixed to mono for those with hearing in only one ear, or to allow for one ear to be open to the environment. 

Combined with features such as ‘Live listen’, the wearer can use their phone's microphone instead of that built into the AirPods. There is an ‘active noise cancellation’ mode where you use both AirPod microphones  to filter out extraneous background noise while still directionally passing through the voice of the person you are facing).

The earpod may also open the way to some exciting healthcare applications as measuring pulse, blood flow and other health-related data are more accurate from a skin surface like the ear as opposed to the wrist through a fitness band or watch. 

9. Microsoft's Seeing AI (2017)

A screen shot from SeeingAI contains the words Complete multiple tasks with one appMicrosoft's SeeingAI is an app (currently only available on iOS) that turns your iPad or iPhone into a smart scanner; identifying currency, text, (some) handwriting, colours, light levels, people and objects. It was designed by a team led by Saquib Shek (a programmer who is himself blind) and was driven by his desire to address the barriers he faced with the technology he already knew existed within Microsoft.

10. Xbox adaptive controller (2018)

A picture of the Xbox controller and a boxMicrosoft’s Xbox adaptive controller opened the door to gaming for disabled people. Even it’s packaging was designed with accessibility in mind, coming apart with a series of cardboard tabs rather than impenetrable plastic wrapping.

The Xbox Adaptive controller has large control pads, but also a series of connectors that allow other switches and controls to be added according to the gamer's preference. Not only does the controller enable disabled people to game alongside disabled and non-disabled players alike, but it also enables co-piloting with players playing in cooperative pairs.

Hands placed on an RNIB orbit reader11. RNIB Orbit Reader (2018) 

Braille displays are complicated and expensive (prohibitively so for many blind and low vision people) and yet they are vital to gain access to written information - especially where an audio alternative is either impractical (due to noise, say), not an option (such as people who are deafblind) or simply not the mode of choice. The Orbit reader is a small, portable braille reader for around £500 – representing a new, radically lower entry-point for blind Braillist everywhere.

12. Google Live Captioning (2019)

A decade after auto-captioning was introduced to YouTube; Google has developed live captioning of any audio on your phone; video, podcasts, messages, any audio file you may have. The service is currently only available on Google's own Pixel hardware and does all processing on-device (meaning no data needs to be sent to 'the cloud' for processing). On more general release is Google's Live Transcribe app that enables live transcriptions of conversations; a fantastically simple 'subtitling for everyday life' and Microsoft's multi-featured Translator app.

What about the next decade?

The 20's (still feels odd saying it) hold even more excitement; the potential of AI (as well as the concerns) the benefit of big data versus the desire to protect privacy, the Internet of Things, ubiquitous computing; technology that runs out-of-sight, out-of-mind. 

I may be slightly bitter that I'm not writing this telepathically from my flying car whilst my robot butler scurries around after me as Tomorrow's World assured me. Still, I can turn on my lights without getting up from the sofa, I have a music library available on request, and I'm regularly disturbed by the thump of my robot vacuum cleaner running full speed into a closed-door; so baby-steps.

For more views and commentary on this dynamic decade of tech with a disability twist, why not listen to the latest Tech Talk podcast; co-hosted by AbilityNet’s Robin Christopherson.

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