Three Life-Changing Technologies at the 2017 Assistive Technology Conference

The event featured a variety of gadgets designed for people with disabilities

10 March 2017

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population—some 1 billion people—have a disability, according to the World Bank. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 people in the United States will be 65 or older by 2030. And 20 percent of Japan’s population is already 65 or older. Many elderly people develop conditions that affect their hearing and vision, making it more challenging for them to benefit from technology.

It’s important to create technologies that can help everyone, regardless of their age or their ability to see, hear, or move. That was the idea behind many of the technologies on display at the CSUN (California State University, Northridge) Assistive Technology Conference, held from 1 to 3 March in San Diego. Here are some of the impressive ones that caught my eye.

  • VIRTUAL ASSISTANT FOR THE BLIND

    Say you’re walking to meet a friend at a restaurant, and the normal route you take is blocked by construction. Sighted people generally can find their way around a construction zone, but if you’re blind, it’s a much more difficult task.

    That’s where Aira, a remote personal assistant service, could come in handy. Aira customers receive a pair of Google Glass or Vuzix smartglasses that are equipped with a microphone and a camera, letting Aira agents see the wearer’s surroundings on a live video feed. If a customer needs help, she can simply tap a button on the glasses to contact an agent, who uses a laptop to connect with the person’s camera.

    Once the representative is connected, he can describe the wearer’s surroundings, track her location on a map, and guide her through city streets, transit systems, and wherever else she wants to go. Agents also can help with everyday tasks, like grocery shopping, reading restaurant menus, and picking out clothing. Erich Manser, who is legally blind and an expert on accessibility technologies for the blind, told attendees that he sometimes asks Aira agents to give him the play-by-play of his daughter’s soccer games.

    The San Diego–based startup offers a subscription plan that lets customers pay for a certain number of minutes per month (but promises its agents won’t just disconnect people when they run out of minutes). Plans range from US $89 to $329 per month. Along with the smartglasses, customers receive an AT&T personal MiFi device that helps them connect to the Internet from wherever they are. The smartglasses can be paired with the customer’s earbuds or headphones

  • A STEADY SPOON

    A simple-sounding task such as eating a bowl of soup can be a messy and often embarrassing ordeal for people whose hands shake uncontrollably due to essential tremor or Parkinson’s disease. That’s what motivated a startup in San Francisco, Calif., to design the Liftware Steady, a utensil system equipped with sensors and motors that can cancel out a customer’s tremor and cut down on spills. The startup, originally called Lift Labs, was acquired by Google in 2014 and is now part of Verily Sciences.*

    The Liftware Steady’s stabilizing handle contains sensors that detect hand motions and a small onboard computer designed to distinguish an involuntary tremor from the intended movement of the hand. To stabilize the utensil, the computer directs two motors in the handle to move the utensil attachment in the opposite direction of a detected tremor. The handle currently comes with a charger and a spoon attachment for $195. Two other attachments, a soup spoon and a fork, are available for $35 each.

    In December the company released the Liftware Level, which allows people with mobility issues due to cerebral palsy or another condition to hold a utensil at any angle while keeping its contents level.

    The batteries for both devices lasts for at least an hour of continuous use (or approximately three meals) on a single charge, and the attachments are dishwasher-safe.*

    In December an anonymous donor* gave 24 utensils to Ability Now, an organization in Oakland, Calif., that provides assistive technologies and support services to people in the Bay Area who have developmental and physical disabilities. One recipient wrote in a letter to Verily that, thanks to the high-tech utensil, for the first time in years she felt comfortable enough to eat Christmas dinner in the same room as her family.

  • VISUALIZING SOUND

    It’s not just startups that are producing assistive technologies. Microsoft, through its Garage incubator program, is developing Hearing AI, a smartphone app for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. The app, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret sounds, vibrates when the alarm on a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector goes off.

    Another feature of Hearing AI is its use of deep learning to convert text to speech, and vice versa, making it easier for the user to communicate with the hearing world. The text appears larger or smaller depending on the volume of the person’s voice, so a deaf user can better understand the tone of the conversation.

    The app uses augmented reality to help people understand and visualize sounds that are going on around them. Users can simply hold their smartphone up to view animations overlaid on the scene in front of them that move and pulsate to the rhythm of a pop song playing in the room, for example.

    The app, which is still being tested, is currently available only for iOS smartphones. You can register to try a beta version.

  • *This article has been corrected.

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