Why Accessibility Is a Critical Piece of Tech Trends for 2020

January 7, 2020

As digital technologies become an ever-greater part of our lives, it’s more important than ever to understand how they intersect with accessibility. Here are four of the hottest tech trends for 2020, and how accessibility can play a crucial role for each one.

1. Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence is one of the hottest tech trends right now, so it’s no surprise that AI has plenty of applications in the accessibility space. In the past several years, we’ve already seen AI put to good use for people with disabilities.

Microsoft’s Seeing AI mobile app, for example, uses the smartphone camera to analyze a user’s surroundings with computer vision techniques. People who are blind or visually-impaired can use Seeing AI to convert text into robotic speech, scan product barcodes, recognize nearby people, learn about the objects in a room, and more.

Another example of AI-powered technology is the mobile app Ava, which uses AI and natural language processing to provide real-time conversation subtitles for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. Ava is intended for both personal and professional use and is currently compatible with 14 different spoken languages.

Techniques in AI and computer vision can also improve accessibility for people with physical disabilities. In 2019, for example, the company Hoobox Robotics launched the “Wheelie 7” prototype kit. The Wheelie 7 kit can control an electric wheelchair based solely on the user’s facial expressions, helping people with conditions such as quadriplegia and motor neuron diseases.

2. Mobile apps

Mobile app downloads are expected to grow by 45 percent in the next few years, from 178 billion in 2017 to 258 billion in 2020. The explosion in mobile apps could mean good news for the accessibility space.

In addition to Seeing AI and Ava, there’s no shortage of mobile apps that are intended to help people with disabilities. Apps such as Aira and Be My Eyes, for example, offer benefits to users who are blind or have low vision:

  • Be My Eyes users can place video calls to volunteer helpers who can assist them with various tasks, remotely and in real time.
  • Aira users wear “smart” glasses with an embedded video camera. This video is sent to a network of trained specialists who can help them navigate the world around them by reading text, providing directions, and describing their surroundings.

Nonverbal communication, also known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), is another way in which mobile apps can improve the quality of life for people with certain disabilities. TouchChat, Avaz, JABtalk, and Snap Core First are just a few examples of AAC smartphone and tablet apps, possibly making it easier for users with speech and language disabilities to communicate at the touch of a button.

Mobile apps can also offer value in the physical world. The WheelMate app, for example, helps users find nearby wheelchair-friendly bathrooms and accessible parking spaces in 35,000 locations worldwide.

3. Virtual and augmented reality

Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) aren’t just for video games — they’re on the cusp of making it big for use cases that include education, healthcare, engineering, and of course accessibility.

Another Microsoft innovation for accessibility, the Canetroller is a device that helps people who use a white cane interact with virtual environments. The Canetroller uses haptic (touch-based) and auditory feedback to simulate the experience of navigating in the real world.

London’s National Theatre has experimented with augmented reality for the benefit of people with hearing disabilities. Audience members can wear a pair of Epson AR smart glasses with a digital display that provides closed captions to the show in real time, letting them more easily take in the full performance.

The applications of VR and AR for accessibility are limited perhaps only by developers’ imaginations. For example, the Touching Masterpieces installation used virtual reality to great effect, allowing people with visual disabilities to experience classic artworks up close and personal. After donning a pair of haptic gloves, users could virtually feel sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David and the ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, exploring them with their hands.

4. Brain-controlled devices

Brain-controlled devices might sound like pure science fiction, but they come closer to reality every day. A growing number of tech companies are exploring the use of brain-computer interfaces for various electronic devices — a development that has obvious benefits for people with motor and other disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” is currently testing the Modular Prosthetic Limb, a prosthetic arm that can be controlled directly by the user’s thoughts. According to the DOD website, the project has the potential of “restoring near-natural hand and arm control to people living with the loss of an upper limb.”

In September 2019, Facebook announced a billion-dollar acquisition of the brain-control startup CTRL-labs, which is developing a wristband that translates electrical signals into computer input. The deal, which is Facebook’s biggest purchase in five years, is expected to help users interact more quickly and intuitively with their computers, without the need for typing or a keyboard and mouse.

Even car manufacturers are exploring the brain-control possibilities. In 2018, Nissan revealed a prototype “brain-to-vehicle” headset that allows an automobile to understand and anticipate the driver’s actions, instants before they actually occur. Brain-to-vehicle (B2V) technology could possibly help millions of people operate motor vehicles more easily and safely.

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