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Assimilate This! Wearable Technology and Disability


If you like Star Trek, you’ll know that the Borg are part lifeform, part machine! Wearable Technology might not quite be the same thing but I thought I’d have a look and see what wearable technology we could adapt to serve the needs of disabled people (sorry…that’s more Star Trek 😉

What is Out There? 

There are many different forms of wearable technology that could help disabled people. I’m going to talk about smartwatches, Google Glass, a “finger reader” and some upcoming innovations from Japan.

Smart Watches

A smartwatch is similar to an ordinary watch but offers some of the features that a smartphone has, but easily accessible without you having to reach into your bag or pocket to get updates.  The smartwatches tend to have LCD displays or small touchscreens, can run many different Apps and surprisingly can also tell you the time!!! Smartwatches often also have sport-related functions on them , such as stop watch functions and pedometers (measuring how many steps a person takes). They can also allow a person to make and receive calls and send/receive texts and emails.

There is voice activation included on many of these watches, which would prove very useful to those with certain disabilities such as visual impairment or limited mobility. However, as many of the devices are also touch screen enabled, this would limit accessibility for some users as you need to perform certain movements with your hands or fingers to access certain functions.  It might be useful to have reminders sent directly to the wearer, especially if the watch continues to make a noise until, for example, someone has taken medication and pressed stop.

Google Glass

Google Glass is wearable technology that looks like a pair of eye glasses but has a computer display built into the lens to display information from the internet or other software. Google Glass already has a number of features that can help those with disabilities to access the device. There is a hands-free factor and voice-activated control which take things a step in the right direction. The device also features elements of eye control (you can wink to take a photograph) and detects head movements (Head Wake Up)

In America, a technology specialist in a Rehabilitation Centre has been modifying Google Glass to harness its possibilities for people with disabilities. Hacking into Google Glass is no mean feat, but Andy Lin has been working on it for a while and his efforts seem to be paying off. One of his patients, Enrique, has limited movement due to muscular dystrophy and uses a ventilator to breathe. Recently Enrique was able to use the voice commands in order to take a picture – something he had never done before. Lin says that for many patients, this is the feature they would use the most – to send pictures to their friends and family. 

Another of Lin’s patients, Rosie, has been testing out Google Glass too. She is in a manual wheelchair, she does not speak and types on a  communication device. She can use her fingers for the communication device, but cannot access the small touchpad on the side of the glasses. This is where Lin’s accessibility work comes in to play. 

Lin has been attempting to eradicate the need for a touchpad with Google Glass by experimenting with switch access, making the device accessible to everyone whether they have limited movement or not. He has also been trying to connect the device to a joystick via Bluetooth to give patients the option to browse the menu from their wheelchair rather than relying on the touchpad itself.

Lin plans to work with developers to create a prototype of Google Glass which would bypass the touchscreen element, meaning that it was completely voice-activated, switch-control accessible and could be synched with powered wheelchairs for ease of use. If these changes are made successfully, it could help people with a wide range of disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and people who have had a stroke or who have brain injuries. 

The Yubi Navi

The BBC have released a video explaining some of the latest wearable technology that is being developed in Japan at this minute. It includes a handheld device called the Yubi Navi. You can hold it in your hand and it will guide you where you need to go without the need to look at a screen. It uses bluetooth and your navigation app on your Smartphone.

This device could potentially be brilliant for those with sight problems or for those with certain cognitive or learning disabilities – the fact that the device takes you where you need to go could come in very useful.

The BBC reports that the same company in Japan are even creating a mobile phone ‘ring’ where the sound travels down the bones of your fingers so that you can make and receive calls far more easily. Finally there’s a watch that is also a gesture control system, where you can turn on the telly, turn the lights off or even unlock the front door. Phew! 

The Finger Reader

An American University has been working on a device that is worn like a ring that can read aloud text. You scan your finger across a line of text and this is then read to you. This is being described as useful for visually impaired people, which it is, but I expect it could also be very important for people with dyslexia or learning disabilities. Also, the ability to read foreign text out in your own language would be useful to many people!

The Verdict 

The one snag I can think of about all of the technologies is that they have to look good and be discreet. I do not particularly like using my long cane where there are a lot of people because it draws attention to me, although I do of course use it. In the same way, no one, regardless of disability, would want to use something that didn’t look fashionable or looked so big you could see it obviously. Hopefully within these new wearable tech, there will be thought put into the look of these devices. 

Wearables are undoubtedly being adapted in order to help disabled people live their daily lives more independently – the possibilities are very exciting. If Google Glass can be adapted by Lin, this could help many different people to access things which they have not yet been able to (taking photos for example).

In terms of smartwatches, I think there is still a long way to go. I wonder how accessible they are. I think they could be useful to some people as you can make hands free calls on them, but there are certain features that would be difficult to access if you have limited mobility.

The prototypes that are being created in Japan sound amazing, however, I think the navigator in particular could be made more accessible. How about it clipping onto something, and being voice activated so that you wouldn’t have to hold it at all?

The device I’m the most excited about going into production is the watch which is voice activated and can open and close doors, turn the telly on and off and even control light switches. This could reduce the need for a carer in the home for someone with muscular dystrophy for example. It could also help those who are visually impaired so they are not feeling around for light switches every day. Although there is still a long way to go, wearable technology is moving in the right direction for people with disabilities. 







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