Tag Archives: assistive technology

Technology, mind maps and people! A blind man’s guide to MWC

The question I most often get asked at MWC is not what’s hot and what’s not. It’s always, how the hell do you cope with Barcelona and the FIRA as a blind person?  The answer is a combination of planning, people and technology.


  • The annual MWC Lewis spreadsheet is legendary. It’s a masterpiece in how to cluster meetings in the same or adjacent halls (and trying to avoid anything north of Hall 5)!
  • Taxis (the subway is a non starter for me). The GSMA put me in touch with a specialist disability taxi firm who sent the same driver each day and even negotiated with the police to drop me off in front of the FIRA South entrance (didn’t always work). NB: The white cane comes in useful in getting to the front of taxi queues – stick with me next year!


  • Mobile Apps: having all of my appointments in the iPhone and the diary announcing everything through Voiceover, meant that I was continually getting audible input whether I wanted it or not
  • Be My Eyes: an accessibility app with over a 100,000 volunteers around the world helping 400,000 visually impaired people. Simply point your smart phone camera at something, click and it polls for a volunteer who comes online via a Web RTC link to tell you what you’re looking at.
  • Tap Tap See: similar to the above, does what it says in the name. Tap when pointing the camera and the system tells you it sees.
  • Orcam:  this new self-contained device provides character, people and product recognition from its mounting on the arm of a pair of normal glasses. Tap the side and it reads any text in front of it. It recognizes people so that it tells you tChris Lewis 1heir names when they stand in front of you. You can even store products like cereal packets, wine labels etc and it will tell you what they are!




Navigation around the FIRA

  • A member of the GSMA customer team kindly arranged met me each morning outside and got me to my first meeting
  • The venue benefits from a grid system and the upper walkway spine: as long as I knew where I was relatively, I could vaguely find my way back to the Press Centre where I made my base
  • Collision avoidance: My low centre of gravity helps. I was bumped into so many times by people looking down at their phones or up at stands but never looking where they were going – despite vigorously waving my white cane. I was even rammed by a catering trolley but the person behind couldn’t see me and, not surprisingly, had expected people to get out of their way!

And, finally, just asking the hoards of people around me. Most are shocked that a man with a white stick is there at all but, as in life in general, the vast majority are phenomenally helpful. Most companies I saw actually walked me to my next meeting – a great excuse for them to get off the stand!

Just like living in London, I don’t allow myself be overwhelmed by the thought of over 100,000 delegates,  8 Halls,  an Upper Walk Way,  a Press Centre and even the new South Village. Just like commuting, you occupy a small island of the MWC at any time. What exists elsewhere is irrelevant, and optimising the route between islands is the goal. Shame Uber can’t operate in the aisles of the FIRA, or perhaps they, in a ground-based vehicle or a drone up near the ceiling, might well do so in the future. Or maybe I’ll give in to family pressure for a guide dog.

In terms of next year, my shopping list is pretty simple: HD Maps and iBeacons.  Despite the hype around autonomous vehicles, the GSMA and the mapping companies still haven’t come up with a walking navigation step-by-step tool to tell me exactly where I am.  For the premier telecoms industry event of the year, surely an app can be built based on all of that lovely tech to guide me? And, as with most accessibility technology today, everyone able-bodied I talk to say they would also love that for themselves!

Finally, my special thanks to all analysts, companies and GSMA employees who made this one of the best MWCs for me. Special mention to John Delaney from IDC who walked me back to my hotel when my taxi couldn’t get past the police barricades around the Catalonian independence demonstrators!

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The Six Million Dollar man 40 years on. Wearables, Smartphones, 3D printing. Cost to you <$100k!

As a teenager in the 1970s I loved Steve Austin, the astronaut who crashed and was rebuilt. Remember the tag line “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology, the capability to make the world’s first Bionic man”! It captured my imagination and has come to the front of my thinking now as I consider the possibilities of using technology to compensate for the different disabilities affecting people today. Perhaps we can’t replicate the eagle-eye zoom or the leopard-like speed of Lee Major’s character, but we can certainly bring functional replacement or complementary devices and applications to bring the astronaut-specific re-build of the 70s down to a very affordable level today.

The price of electronic components is continually falling, fueling the consumer electronics boom. Smartphones, and their associated explosion of applications, leverage the mobile network and the cloud computing phenomenon to deliver a wealth of apps both mainstream and specific to certain conditions, often free or at a minimal charge. On top of this comes the wearables revolution: watches, bracelets, eyeware, hearing devices, patches and exoskeleton limbs. 3D printing also means that the manufacturing of specialist devices is literally at the push of a button and can be taken to the most remote part of the world, delivering prosthetics to Africa at an affordable price point.

So how does the $6 million (not even allowing for inflation) look today? What gadgets, software and services could we pluck from consumer electronics retail outlets, apps stores and the medical community to build our modern-day bionic person?

  • Smartphone – $500
  • Exoskeleton bionic hand – $20,000
  • Exoskeleton legs with muscle stimulated control – $30,000
  • Sight (glasses) – $2,500
  • Hearing – $2,500
  • Bracelet with haptic feedback – $500
  • Smart watch – $500
  • Skin patches- $50

Total = <$100,000

There are, of course, some very expensive options such as retinal implants which still cost $100,000s plus complex surgery. However, most of the shopping list is literally off-the-shelf, or even off-the-printer.

The individual will need a subscription to a mobile provider, and probably also a link to their home WiFi, to enjoy the luxury of controlling the various household devices and services in the smarter-home environment; and, outside of the home, to link with the smart village, town and city services that can also complement the items in terms of navigation, linking into public services as well as the broader business community.

The e-health perspective also needs to be built into the thinking. Some of the devices will link into social and e-health services. Some of the information loops could potentially be to doctors and carers without the individual even needing to be involved. In effect, multiple information loops will feed off and to the individual, whilst improved monitoring and reduced cost of maintaining contact will help fund installations where required.

Steve Austin was funded by the US government in the TV show. In the case of a person being disabled through an accident, insurance would doubtless be involved, as would the medical authorities. Most of the items here are off-the-shelf and affordable for a vast swathe of society, not just limited to astronauts!

The world’s billion disabled people (source WHO) will have an increasing chance of joining in the digital revolution at home, at work and in society as a whole if we all help bring it to their attention. We also need to educate other relevant parties – family and friends, doctors and governments to name a few.

In the year that we all went Back to the Future, it just goes to show that time spent watching TV as a teenager wasn’t wasted. In Thunderbirds and Joe 90, Gerry Anderson predicted video mobile phones, Telepresence and brainwave transplants, and don’t forget the crew of the Starship Enterprise had mobile devices. If you want to predict the future, keep an eye on the TV!
six million dollar man

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What tech is out there for disabled people?

Recent interview with Telefonica about accessibility technology available today and in the future. I’m not the one in the bow tie….

Lewis Insight Interview with Telefonica

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You’re blind: How do you ‘read’, join in social media and find your way around, let alone run a business?

Picture the scene: a blind man walking down the street moving white stick to and fro. He is muttering to himself while clicking a small black thing in his left hand. What is he doing? Actually, he is running his business, doing email, messaging, reading documents, checking-in for his flight and working out the best route using bus and tube to get to the airport. The black device is a mini keyboard, controlling the iPhone in his pocket and it is talking to him via his in-ear Bluetooth device….

Having been registered blind for over 30 years, I am accustomed to the regular question about how the hell do you run a business? I thought it worth while to put this down in writing both as a record of how things stand in 2015, but also as evidence of how my world has changed since the days of cumbersome magnifiers, papers being sent off to be recorded, and very clunky interfaces with early PCs.

Equipment & technology

  1. iPhone 6. This is my main means of consuming content and keeping up to date using the built-in Voiceover feature, (not Siri) as a screen reader that describes to me what is on the screen. Add to this larger than necessary device (the screen size is irrelevant to me) is a small mini Bluetooth keyboard, the RiVo, which I use as a remote control to the iPhone (leaving the phone in my pocket or bag) and a Plantronics Bluetooth earpiece.
  2. Lenovo laptop with Windoweyes and Zoomtext: I still use a laptop for main content creation such as this blog. This is now simply on account of the fact that I like the feel of a full old-fashioned keyboard and a large screen magnified to make me feel I am still working properly! There are no specific built-in applications on the laptop beyond this add-on assistive technology. Updates to Windoweyes and Zoomtext can often cause problems because their interworking with either the hardware from Lenovo or the Windows operating system is a continuous struggle.
  3. Standard TV: On the main TV in the house I do insist on Audio Description being turned on so that I can better follow those tricky dialogue light films and programmes. The verbal description woven in between the actual dialogue often enhances the programme for all the family members – try it for yourself sometime!
  4. Victor Stream Reader from Humanware: This is the one specialist device I use. This no-screen device has very tactile buttons, long battery life and stores my talking books from Audible along with podcasts and access to live streamed radio and some Internet.


On the iPhone I have a mix of regular and specialist apps. The regular apps I use most often are:

  • BBC Sport:
  • BBC New: simple interface and straight forward despite the picture contents
  • Podcasts: annoying interface but great to have access to all that content: perhaps publish a list of my favourites at a later date
  • BBC Weather: simple and really useful when travelling around although not always accurate!
  • British Airways: for managing flights, getting mobile boarding cards – however, the latest version has lost some of its accessibility features and says ‘button’ an awful lot of the time!
  • Google maps: still struggling to get the most out of them but they are good
  • Virgin Media TV Anywhere to manage my set top box and record programmes
  • BBC iPlayer to give me access to my favourite radio  stations and podcasts
  • Twitter: pretty straight forward with Voiceover
  • Google docs to get access and manage my documents on my Google Drive: really useful when out and about
  • LinkedIN: somewhat easier to navigate than LinkedIn on the laptop/web but still clumsy
  • Hailo & Uber for taxis both work well once you have struggled through what needs to be input, when!

In terms of specialist apps, I mainly use:

  • Blind Square for finding restaurants, previewing menus and finding numbers to call for directions in case the map app fails
  • Be My Eyes: for identifying things via a video link to a volunteer when nobody sighted is around to help
  • Tap Tap See: ditto
  • RNIB Navigator: finding my way around and checking that cab drivers are not taking the micky
  • RNIB Overdrive: for access to the library of talking books and magazines!
  • Lire: not really a specialist app but it is a simple RSS app that scans the web for news feeds from your favourite sources.
  • Movie Reading: a beta version of an app that downloads audio description and synchronises with the cinema, TV programme or DVD
  • Camcard: a business card scanning app that uses the phone camera to scan and turn content into input for your contacts

Using the RiVo mini keypad does make navigating the iPhone a lot easier. It also makes typing easier. My preference is using it in the old T9 format, the one you would have used for text on your old Nokia phones. However, it does have a small QWERTY setting but I haven’t gone there.

Using the iPhone with keyboard and earpiece does mean that I can carry on doing email, listening to content, while walking along carrying my white stick. I suspect this is a little like people using their phones while driving but it does make my travel time walking, being driven, flown or sailed, a lot more productive and interesting.

As you may gather, I am close to dispensing with the services of a laptop if I can get a high quality full QWERTY keyboard that fits my aging fingers and suits my typing style! I would still plug it into a big screen in the office to give me the option of magnifying as and when necessary.

With most content now being available digitally and via the web or an app, I can consume and create content almost as readily as a sighted peer. Spreadsheets do pose a problem, as does Power Point. So, as with the apps world, I do draw on some human sighted assistance when this poses a problem.

The good news is that barriers are coming down, the more digital society gets, the more I should be able to join in on an equal footing.

I will keep you posted as things change.

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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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