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How technology is making life easier for disabled people

BY James O'Malley

18th Jul 2023 Technology

How technology is making life easier for disabled people

As AI makes our smartphones even smarter, some new features are helping to open up the world for people with disabilities, says our tech expert James O'Malley

One of the best things about new technology is how it makes the world more accessible to people with disabilities.

For example, both iPhone and Android have a “magnifier” app that turns the camera into a magnifying glass, to help people with limited vision read things more easily. And both have “voice-over” modes which will read out any text on the phone screen aloud—making it possible for blind or partially sighted people to use phones and apps fully.

And then there’s my favourite hidden iPhone feature—“live listen”. Simply connect your Bluetooth headphones and place your phone near the person you’re speaking to, and it will use the microphone to relay their voice directly into your ears.

"For most people, Siri and Alexa are a convenience or even a toy. But if you’re blind, they’re potential life savers"

You can even programme an iPhone to listen for the sound of your smoke alarm and alert you if it hears anything, which is great news for people who are unable to hear.

And there are plenty of other phone features that aren’t specifically designed for accessibility that open up the digital world too.

Take Siri or Alexa, for example. For most people, they are a convenience or even a toy. But if you’re blind, they’re potential life savers, capable of sending messages or receiving instructions, entirely through the power of your voice.

How AI is driving accessibility

Playing recorded voice on phone to assist disabilityApple's new iPhone operating system could simulate users' voices to help people who have lost their speech

What’s truly exciting though is how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling the creation of even smarter accessibility features.

On the most recent Google Pixel phones, for example, it’s possible to turn on a feature called “Live Captions”. This listens to whatever sound is coming from your phone, and automatically transcribes what it hears—displaying the text on the screen as subtitles. This means that deaf people can easily watch videos—or even make video calls.

And similarly, the next version of Apple’s iPhone operating system (which you’ll be able to install on the newest iPhones later this year) will offer an accessibility feature where you can point the camera at, well, anything, and it will pick out any words it sees and display them more clearly on the screen.

And perhaps more magically, it will reportedly even let you create a simulation of your own voice and have it speak for you—the idea being that people who have conditions where they lose their speech will be able to use their iPhone as a substitute, giving us all technology similar to what Stephen Hawking used, but in the palms of our hands.

How we all benefit from accessible tech

Wearable smart glasses for disabled peopleWearable smart glasses could use the same smartphone features that are assisting disabled people right now

What I think is most striking though is what all of these clever accessibility features mean for the rest of us, who may not need to use the features for their intended uses.

This isn’t just because the ravages of age means that it’s likely that sooner or later, you will require some sort of accessibility help, but because how the core technologies that drive them will also be crucial to making the next big technological leap after the smartphone happen.

For example, by the time you’re reading this, it is likely that Apple will have announced its own mixed reality glasses—imagine a pair of smart glasses that will overlay digital information onto the real world, so that you won’t need to look at a phone—all the information will appear just there in front of you.

"It’s actually possible to imagine how such headsets might work, because these fundamental technologies already exist"

The idea behind such headsets—if they’re ever going to be truly useful—is that they will work almost as an extension of brains and bodies.

We’ll want them to give us directions when we need them, and help us understand our surroundings. And we’ll need a way to interact with headsets without buttons or a touchscreen, using our voice or by gesturing with our hands.

This is for sure a tricky technical challenge, but it’s actually possible to imagine how such headsets might work, because these fundamental technologies already exist thanks to accessibility features on smartphones already on the market.

For example, say a headset maker wanted to build a feature where, if you look at a shop, the headset would automatically display the opening hours floating above it—we know that recognising what shop we’re looking at is possible, because the iPhone’s camera vision feature can already do it.

Or if we wanted to tell our headset to pull up a price comparison with other shops in the area—we know we can do this with our voice, because Siri can already do something similar.

Accessibility and innovation go hand-in-hand

And from the other perspective, it’s possible to imagine how accessibility will be even better on these future headsets too.

It’s not inconceivable that in the next few years, we’ll start to see headsets that automatically listen to everything and transcribe it—essentially providing live subtitles for our real lives.

"Accessibility features don’t just help the people who need them—they help make our technology even better for everyone else too"

And if people with limited vision want help spotting obstacles as they walk, then it’s possible a headset with a camera could help them avoid collisions too.

Ultimately, this is a great way to think about accessibility features and why they’re so important on our modern devices. Because they don’t just help the people who need them—they help make our technology even better for everyone else too.

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