When Microsoft produced its first Kinect device in 2007, designed to accompany the Xbox 360 released two years earlier, the tech world spent many months discussing how the gadget could revolutionise gaming. The device – which used a complex system of sensors and lasers to detect and process movement – was generally imagined as a tool for teenage boys, allowing energetic gamers to dive straight into a virtual warzone from the safety of their bedrooms.
But within five years, Kinect had found another purpose. Undergraduate engineers at the University of Pennsylvania mounted the Kinect on a belt, and created a device that helped blind people navigate through obstacles. The initiative was widely commended, and quickly won national awards.
Kinect’s story is a common one: a tech invention, designed originally for commercial profit, which was later adapted to meet the needs of a disabled community. Nowhere can this better be seen than in the world of mobile apps, which since their 2007 explosion have come to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives.
Mobile apps traditionally focused on leisure and fun: the simple but addictive game Snake, launched by Nokia in 1998, became something of a global fascination, still remembered fondly by many of those who bought mobiles in the early 2000s. But developers gradually turned their attention to more philanthropic concerns, with each improvement of app technology later adapted into ‘assistive technology’, which helps those living with disabilities complete day-to-day tasks.
Now we have apps like the popular Aipoly, designed for the visually impaired, which uses artificial intelligence to identify common objects with remarkable accuracy. All you do is point your phone camera at an object – say, the coffee cup on your desk – and the app will tell you what it is. Totally free of charge, Aipoly also tells colour-blind users the specific shade of any given item.
But what about when you need to see something that isn’t as common as a cup – say, the expiration date on a bottle of milk? That’s where Be My Eyes comes in. Invented in 2015 by the partially-sighted Hans Wiberg, the Danish non-profit app allows blind or visually impaired users to send a live video of the text they cannot read to a volunteer, anywhere in the world, who will help them. It currently has over 32,000 blind users, and over 450,000 sighted volunteers.
The key to the success of this new generation of assistive technology is its low cost, believes Ceri Balston, head of digital strategy at the London-based disability charity Scope. While in previous decades innovations in disability technology required slow and costly improvements in hardware, software development is comparatively cheap, he says.
“The developments we’re seeing now are far more software-based, which makes the technology far more accessible,” he said. “Apple in particular has been very good at driving this accessibility.”
One startup that excited the tech world upon its 2014 release was Braci, the “smart ear” technology produced in Wolverhampton by three Qatari students, who first met on a reality television show. The app turns a deaf user’s smartphone into a an extra ear, detecting sounds from their environment and identifying them for the user. Braci has reportedly mapped all 35 of the internationally recognised fire alarm sounds, along with doorbells, crying babies and burglar alarms.
Encapsulated by the popular phrase ‘There’s an app for that!’, the running joke now is that an app exists for every possible activity – and disability is no different. For those living with Alzheimer’s, the Book of You app will store details of their personal story, complete with precious moments, photographs of their grandchildren and key information about their history. And autistic children can learn to identify various facial emotions with Learn with Rufus, designed by US clinical psychologist Dr Holly Gastgeb.
But there is still much more to be done, says Philip Connolly, policy and development manager at Disability Rights UK. Philip wants to see a shift towards assistive technology that is designed and produced by disabled people themselves, and says there are still basic challenges facing many.
“These new apps are exciting, and many of them are absolutely crucial, but there are some stages much further back that still need addressing,” he said. “Disabled people need more assistance in getting online, in getting internet connected, and in acquiring digital skills.”
Philip’s dream is an online tech forum that allows disabled users to collaborate to produce their own tech solutions, catered for their own particular needs. He has even self-funded an app, BeResilient, to encourage this cooperation.
The future of assistive technology is certainly exciting. And as the financial incentives of the gaming industry drives further innovation – this time in the form of 360 video and Virtual Reality – it seems likely that a new generation of apps will allow disabled users to fulfill their potential in ways we cannot yet imagine.