Big Screen, Small Screen, No Screen – Assistive Technology for the Visually Impaired

At the recent Vision UK 2020 conference, stakeholders in the eye-care sector pulled together a Tech Table to demonstrate the breadth and depth of current and emerging technology available to the visually impaired (VI). In the mainstream telecoms market, people talk about Big Screen (television) to Small Screen (smart phone) as a continuum of devices through which people consume their digital lifestyles. We demonstrated that these are equally relevant for the visually impaired as well as extending the continuum with a few ‘No Screen’ devices specially developed for the VI sector.

The Big Screen is represented by increasing number of accessible televisions on the market. Samsung has now released its accessible sets where on-screen menus can be turned into speech generating prompts for the visually impaired. They don’t yet work with set top boxes provided by Sky and Virgin, but apps are increasingly available on smart phones to step in and provide this element of accessibility.

In between the Big and Small screens come tablets that are increasingly peoples’ preferred devices. Android and Apple provide a range of accessible tablets that can help the visually impaired, both through magnified screen and screen readers. They are affordable, light, and can act as peoples’ access point into the digital world. Looking a little further forward, they can also be the hub for controlling many aspects of the household as well as a link for e-health services.

The now traditional laptop fits in here as well. It is unfortunate that screen readers are not designed as part of the operating system, except for Apple. This tends to make many of the required apps not totally accessible. However, as a tool for creating documents and for those of us who grew up believing a computer needs a physical keyboard, they still play a vital role. Hopefully, as Microsoft releases Windows 10, we will have a built-in screen reader, whilst benefiting from a much cheaper braille display.

The small screen is represented by ubiquitous smart phones. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, amongst others, provide a very accessible platform for people at home and out and about. The trend in this market is for larger screens, creeping up to the tablet level. However, the availability of high quality Bluetooth earpieces and mini Bluetooth keyboards does mean that the chunky smart phone can stay in the pocket, and all its wonderful apps can be used, even while walking along carrying a white cane!

There is an even smaller screen in the form of the smart watch. Apple recently brought out its watch that certainly helps seed the market. It has accessibility built in both in terms of speech output and haptic feedback. However, it still needs a smartphone to operate and the screen is only useful to a small minority of VI people. A nice piece of fashion but, for now, it seems to be in the luxury category rather than essential.

No Screen is, for the time being, something specific for the VI community. Humanware’s Victor Reader and the SonataPlus from the British Wireless Association for the Blind, are two great examples of devices made specifically for the blind and partially sighted community. Simple, tactile button operated devices linking the VI person to both downloaded and streamed content including radio, podcasts and those lovable audio books all make life a lot easier. And, with no screen, the Victor Reader battery life lasts a lot longer than your average smart phone. The Sonata has a very simple set of buttons to operate and also has the possibility of remote assistance to help users set up and manage their digital content – blending a little human help with the wealth of technology available.

From a mainstream technology point of view, the assistance provided by Siri and Cortana on smart devices is now going to be joined by solutions such as Amazon Echo, a general purpose screenless device for your home providing voice activated information and entertainment.

It is also worth mentioning a non-smart device at this point. The Bradley Time piece is a great example of watch design with magnetic ball bearing providing a tactile minute and hour information. It is a fine example of beautiful design and absolutely practical function that compliments all of the computer-based technology on the continuum.

Across all these platforms exist a series of apps that come from both the open market and the VI market. An accessible device allows us to do online shopping, banking and web browsing that our sighted peers have enjoyed for some time. In addition, our daily lives can be helped by specialist apps that address our lack of eye sight and use computing power, image and recognition software as well as volunteers to help provide some human sighted assistance. Perhaps more importantly, an accessible smart phone will also increasingly link to household devices, cinemas and the outside world in the form of city information and services to facilitate a lot more accessibility.

In the digital accessibility stream, we also heard from Oxford University and Microsoft (working with RNIB and Guide Dogs respectively), about future looking projects which will enhance our lives through incredibly powerful camera and recognition software as well as the ability to navigate with smart technology on our streets and buildings. Combine this with the range of peripheral devices, (some might call wearables) becoming available and we can leverage bone conduction headsets with CD quality 360 sound to complement all other senses at play.

In short, there is a wealth of technology available today. It is increasingly accessible and relatively simple to use. Some need hand-holding to get started, but nobody should fear technology when sight is a problem. Spread the word: technology as a life enhancing tool is here to stay and it is there to be adapted to the visually impaired and not vice versa.

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