Six Exciting Advancements in Accessible Technology

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  • DEIA

When we think of accessibility within the technology space, we often think of how technical solutions can either help make life easier for those with disabilities, or about how they must be adapted to be usable for those with disabilities. We also think of the challenges that designing and building for accessibility can present.

What we don’t always consider is how the technical innovations that come from solving these challenges, that come from designing with all end users in mind and building products that expand accessibility, often propel us forward as a civilization in amazing, unforeseen ways.

For example, the software used to expand a web page on your cell phone, zooming in and increasing focus, was created for people with low vision. However, most people use it multiple times a day, every day. Audiobooks, an industry that cusped $12 billion dollars last year, were originally created for blind readers. Even the technology behind Amazon’s Echo and Siri, voice-activated and controlled AI meant to automate buying, playing music, turning on electronics and many other household tasks, originated as tools for people with mobility and vision issues.

With that in mind, here are six of the best emerging accessibility technology solutions to keep an eye on. They’re increasing accessibility today and have the potential to dramatically improve how we all live tomorrow.

In Tokyo, there’s a café called Avatar Robot Café. The hostess that greets you and takes you to your seat is a robot. The barista that makes your coffee is a robot. The server that rattles off the menu is a robot. But this is not a place where robots have (finally?) taken over human jobs. No, this is a place run by OryLab Inc. where people that have mobility issues or difficulty leaving their home or the hospital can remote operate a robot avatar. So that hostess is a person. And your server offering you suggestions on which green tea to drink, is not an AI, but someone who knows what green tea tastes like. The mission here is to achieve a new form of social participation, for those who may not get it, through technology. They’ve done that by creating accessible jobs for those who may not have many other options. You can find out more about them here.

Tensorflow.js was cooked up by NYU’s Ability Project. It’s an open-source library that runs machine learning models on-device and in your browser. The Ability Project, along with Google, created a set of experiments called Creatability, which yielded a number of tools to make creativity more accessible. Tools that let you see sound to make music. Tools that use your computer’s camera and your body movement to control musical instruments. Tools use your body’s movement or sound to draw and paint. All of these are giving people with different disabilities, whether that’s blindness and low visibility, deafness, or mobility issues, an outlet to create music, art, and more. You can use the tools yourself for free at the Creatability website.

The Orcam MyEye was originally designed for people with blindness and low visibility. However, the same tech also assists people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The Orcam MyEye is a small device that attaches to eyeglass frames. It reads all printed materials and can be programmed for several different languages. It has facial recognition, can recognize surface colors, like when pointed at clothing and identify objects including money. It’s voice-activated and was listed by TIME magazine as one of the best ground-breaking inventions of 2019. Check it out here.

In the age of social media, photography has become a de facto past time for most people. But, people with low vision and blindness are often left out of this part of the social equation. That’s where Sony’s DSC-HX99 RNVkit comes in. This kit, which combines laser technology and a digital camera, scans an image at high magnification and then, using a laser, projects the image directly onto the retina of the eye—bypassing any eye damage. As long as the retina is intact, a person can use it. It can be used for vision or photography or reading.

Developed by Harvard’s Astronomy Lab and Clay Telescope, Lightsound allows blind or low vision people to hear the stars, an eclipse, or any heavenly body. It translates light into sound, a process called sonification, so that students can learn and take readings from the telescope. Combined with using a tactile printer to print images, the lab is determined to make learning about the stars open to everyone.

BMIs are one of the fastest growing sectors of assistive technology. In May 2023, Nature reported that one new BMI test had successfully allowed a person with a spinal cord injury, and paralysis, to regain walking. It re-established the communication between the brain and spinal cord that had been disrupted by an injury and, for over a year at time of publication, allowed the person to walk naturally.

More countries have submitted patents for BMIs than any other assistive tech in the last few years. The potential for incredible change is enormous. From instant language translation to potential in warfare for soldiers to control weaponry and aircraft, BMIs will definitely change the world.


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