This afternoon I went to Everybody Technology, an event to discuss the need for technology to be inclusive and made in a way that is “so smart, so simple and so powerful it works for everybody”.
A highlight of the afternoon was Stephen Hawking – perhaps one of the best examples of the power of technology to enable someone to reach their potential. He also supported the event by lending his voice to a promotional video which explains the idea better than I can.
There were several speakers. I won’t do them justice, but I did jot a few notes…
They talked of the stigma of using “special” equipment created especially for the blind. There were examples where even when technology or tools exist that can help, people don’t always want to use them. Maybe because they feel embarrassed, or they don’t want to be different, or even that they’re struggling with feeling forced to join a group of people they don’t feel a part of.
They discussed how it was more acceptable to use technologies when they are “standard” and how some felt more comfortable using technology that doesn’t single them out as being different.
Someone noted how people can be embarrassed wearing a hearing aid to help them hear, whilst few people would be embarrassed to wear glasses to help them see. Why are some assistive technologies more culturally acceptable than others?
There was a lot of mention of iDevices and appreciation of assistive technology being delivered as iPhone apps. To everyone else, it’s an iPhone and doesn’t stand out as being different. In addition, the fact that it’s mass-manufactured has meant that an expensive collection of advanced sensors and processing capability can be made affordable. An equivalent device produced purely as an assistive technology would be prohibitively expensive. The iPhone sparked a smartphone revolution that made this technology affordable in a way that it wasn’t before.
There was also discussion about how the app culture removed barriers between potential users and developers. Affordable sensors and technology made widely available, combined with a low-cost delivery mechanism for software innovations, make possible innovations in assistive technology that would have been impossible a few years ago.
Presentation on accessible architecture by Paul Kalkhoven
This looked at parallels between buildings and software. Disability became accepted as important in architecture and you can’t build a new building without considering accessibility. This isn’t yet true of technology.
He talked of the conflicting interests of design and utility. When designing a building, you want it to be unique and different. However, you want it to be obvious. If you want to find a toilet or fire exit, you want to understand the layout immediately. The same applies to technology: we want to make something new and exciting. But there is an expectation that it should be usable without a manual. It needs to be accessible.
One observation I hadn’t really recognised: transport buildings lead the way for accessible architecture, often abiding by a common, albeit unwritten, set of standards.
He challenged us to consider what technologists could learn from their experience.
Presentation on talking TVs by Mark Vasey (Panasonic)
Voice guidance is included as standard in most new Panasonic TVs, offering text-to-speech guidance for complex TV menus.
Perhaps more interesting was how they made it happen. He talked about challenges such as the cost of development, licensing and royalties for a feature they include “for free”. There were challenges in marketing to a minority, without wanting to classify it as a specialist product, and without making sighted users think that they were paying for a feature they didn’t need or want.
Similar to the discussion of the iPhone’s impact, he explained how the only way they could do this and make it affordable was to make it standard. Making a specialist TV with accessibility features for the visually impaired would not have been affordable. Spreading the cost across their entire product line is what made it possible.
Presentation on Threedom Phone – Antony Ribot (Ribot)
Antony gave a thought-provoking presentation about their project to make the world’s simplest smartphone.
The smartphone revolution has been great for many, but isn’t suitable for everyone. For some, the controls are too small, or too fiddly, or just too complicated. What if we made a smartphone that had only three buttons? Could we provide the essential functions that people need on a device with three large, easy to press, easy to understand, buttons?
He had an example with him and made a convincing case that there is a need for a device like this, in a market where devices are racing to get more complicated.
Everybody Technology : rlsb.org.uk/everybody
A year ago, I wrote about RLSB’s event which brought together a handful of representatives from tech companies, consumer-facing businesses, Universities, and charities for the blind. We talked about a vision of a Conversational Internet.
A year later, and RLSB got together a couple of hundred people to talk about projects that had happened – both by them, such as the Conversational Internet prototype that I presented, and by others such as Panasonic’s collaboration with RNIB to produce Voice Guidance.
They talked about what comes next, establishing a new group to bring together technologists and designers with people who understand disabilities, to make real their vision where everyone is taken into consideration.
If you think this is something you can help with, either as a developer, designer, or someone who understands a disability, then why not join them.