Mobile connectivity has changed all our lives but more so for those with disabilities. It’s often the case that these changes are not always good. Some technology excludes the disabled. If you can’t park your car because you find an app too complicated. Even applying for a blue badge requires a significant ability to use online services.
So it’s always heartening to discover technology which makes life better for disabled people.
Head in the clouds
Furthest off is Meta, which is being designed by the Chinese research organisation Cloudminds with funding from the Chinese government. This looks like a cycling helmet but Cloudminds calls it “the World’s first Cloud AI Guiding Robot”. Getting the words “Cloud”, “AI” and “Robot” into one product description must win some kind of buzzword bingo prize. But ultimately this technology for the blind is a device which uses the same kind of system which are being developed for self-driving cars to help blind people navigate. The Meta has a collection of cameras and sensor which track the surrounding area sends the information up to a cloud server which then uses artificial intelligence which then interprets the information to help the wearer.
The features include guidance which it calls SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) this will help people walk down the street avoiding parked cars and wheelie bins. It will also understand traffic lights and zebra crossings.
The software will do optical character recognition and read out information from currency, electricity meters and the like. It will also do text to speech, object recognition and face recognition. There are plenty of sighted people who’d like this technology for the blind which with a quiet word in your ear tells you who you have just met.
I see for you
Aria is a service where Aria’s agents help by telling the user what is happening around them. The kit is not explicitly technology for the blind, the service uses one of the new generation of Smart Glasses, such as the Vuzix M100 which have a camera and a mobile phone link. They are designed for sighted people to be able to look at the screen of their smartphone 100% of the time instead of just the usual 200 times a day. The advantage for visually impaired people is that clever software, combined with the camera can highlight the edges of things. The Aira service streams the view to an agent who tells the customer what is happening around them. With GPS the agent can give directions.
The service is expensive, the glasses typically cost £1,000 and the service costs between $89 (£65) and $329 (£240) a month depending on the number of minutes of assistance. The service runs from midday until 6pm. The best comparison is a guide dog which costs tens of thousands of pounds to train.
Because it uses 4G technology the service will only work well in places with good coverage, and many big cities with lots of skyscrapers struggle with this. New mobile phone technologies are improving this.
It’s feels like five O’clock
The dot is a braille watch. This might seem a little pointless there have been watches you can feel since watches were mechanical. They simply don’t have glass on their face. More recently there ha been the Bradley, a phone for the blind that is so cool most of the sales have been to sighted people. Ironically this has made the Bradley more expensive. What normally happens when devices designed for people with disabilities go mainstream is that the price goes down. A famous example is the cordless kettle which was originally only meant for older people. Now all kettles are cordless and they are cheaper as a result. The Bradley has become so cool it’s expensive at between £235 and £315 depending on the model. That’s what fashion does for you.
What makes Dot a special piece of technology for the blind is that it’s more than a watch, it works with a smartphone to be a braille reader for text messages with four characters at a time popping up as little pistons. So as well as telling the time it’s a way for blind users to use a smartphone. It’s available now in the US and Korea at around £200. Like the Bradley it looks cool but as you’ll need to learn braille which is notoriously hard it’s unlikely the fashionistas will take to it.