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Here’s How the Internet of Things Can Improve Accessibility

Sight impaired man entering subway car

IoT and AI enhanced devices are helping sight-impaired travelers navigate through places such as subway stations, shopping centers and pedestrian walkways.

September 5, 2019 - For many years, starting at the dawn of the information age, technology advanced at a breakneck pace, often with little regard for individuals who couldn’t take full advantage of the tech that was emerging from labs, incubators, and Silicon Valley startups.

Thankfully, awareness of the need for accessibility has been catching up to tech in recent years, and it’s increasingly an equal partner with other priorities in the design process now.

Indeed, one of the most exciting developments in tech is the growth of the Internet of Things, because it has the potential to dramatically improve accessibility in a number of important ways.

Delivering ease of access

When we talk about accessibility, we traditionally refer to design principles that enable people with disabilities to make use of products with ease – whether that’s a ramp for wheelchair access to a building or computer displays that accommodate users with color blindness. Increasingly, though, technology is delivering the principles of ease of access to real-world challenges.

Take IoT in the home, for example. Connected home products, which are essentially the endpoints in consumer-level IoT networks, are increasingly accessibility-savvy. Smart speaker systems like Amazon Echo and Google Home have voice-activated AI personal assistants.

These devices allow anyone to find information and issue commands to other connected devices by voice, with no physical interaction needed at all. Initially conceived as a convenience, it turns out that this is a powerful accessibility tool for people with all manner of challenges or disabilities.

And this kind of technology is moving out of the home.

Helping navigate difficult terrain

Recently, a partnership among IBM Research, Japan’s Shimizu DCorp, and a real estate developer deployed and tested a precision voice navigation system in Tokyo. The problem the system seeks to solve: Tokyo’s underground is a veritable maze of more than 200 subway stations, myriad shopping centers, and pedestrian walkways that stretches for hundreds of miles.

It’s a challenge for sighted people to navigate, and a nightmare for sight-impaired travelers. So using a smartphone app called NavCog, users talking part in field tests can now navigate around 226,000 square feet of these passageways with audible instructions delivered by an IoT that is built from hundreds of highly accurate navigation beacons, using the same sort of plain language queries that you’d ask Siri – like “Take me to the theater.”

Microsoft has gotten involved in solving accessibility problems with the IoT as well. The company’s Seeing AI app, for example, is trying to take what NavCog does – help people find their way around – and do something similar, just on a much more expansive scale.

Seeing AI narrates what it sees through the smartphone camera for blind users and those with low vision. It can read text aloud, identify certain objects, identify people using facial recognition, describe scenes and locations, and more. It’s a research tool, but it’s actually in the iPhone’s App Store right now.

Scaling up

As we scale up IoTs, our expectations about what kind of accessibility they might offer goes up as well.

IoT smart buildings, for example, can “bake in” voice-enabled technology that lets people with various kinds of disabilities perform common tasks (like lighting and environmental controls, as well as locking and unlocking doors) far more easily. Residents with significant medical needs might come to rely on the IoT to help them take medication, send medical data and diagnostics to caregivers, and more.

Already, for example, healthcare facilities in Singapore use connected devices in home IoTs to automatically collect personal health information about elderly assisted care patients and send it to their doctors.

The future of IoT is a very promising one for improving ease of access for everyone.

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