Assistive Technologies: Helping The Disabled Join The Technological Revolution
Costs Aren’t the Only Concern
Assistive technology adoption has also been hindered by availability issues. At this stage of development, the quality of speech synthesis and recognition is near human levels, but the technologies are available for only the most common languages. Even companies with the most prolific offerings only support several dozen languages, though around the world about 6 percent of the nearly 7,000 living languages spoken today have more than a million speakers each.
Also challenging the industry is the growing number of people with disabilities, particularly as lifespans get longer. But on the positive side, that has resulted in millions of people with other types of disabilities who are using speech technologies in new and unique ways. And there are new companies cropping up all the time to serve them.
One such company is Voiceitt, a start-up that is set to launch this year. Voiceitt will offer an application designed to help people with speech and language disorders to communicate with others. It translates unintelligible sounds into understandable speech. The application starts by learning the user’s speech patterns, creating a personal speech dictionary, and then identifying and recognizing the unintelligible utterances and translating them into speech that can be understood by others. A caregiver can type phrases into the app if the user is not able to do so independently.
Another start-up to emerge is AVA (Audio Visual Aid)—formerly Transcence Labs. AVA offers a solution that can enable the deaf to take part in group conversations. During a conversation, the app catches what each person is saying via that participant’s smartphone’s microphone and then converts it into text in real time. Each speaker has his own corresponding text bubble, differentiated by color, similar to what is found in chat and messaging apps.
Perhaps the greatest area of innovation in the world of assistive technologies, though, comes in the blending of basic speech capabilities with other technologies.
A vivid example is the PCEye Plus device, launched in mid-2017 by Tobii Dynavox. PCEye Plus is a device that combines advanced eye tracking and infrared control with speech recognition. The eye-tracking technology allows users to access applications, surf the web, connect with friends online, play games, and even make spreadsheets using only their eyes. Integrated speech recognition and a four-array microphone system also allow for dictation and voice control.
Another example is MotionSavvy’s UNI, a two-way communication tool for the deaf that blends gesture and speech technology. UNI can translate sign language into audible speech using motion and gesture recognition and convert spoken words to written text using speech recognition.
A similar offering is Finger Reader from the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT. Finger Reader is a wearable tool that reads text aloud for the blind or visually impaired. A small camera on the Finger Reader scans text, say from a book or a restaurant menu, and gives real-time audio feedback. It also notifies the reader via vibrations when it is at the start of a line, end of a line, moving to a new line, or when the user is moving too far away from the text baseline.
And then there is Voxello, a developer of communication solutions for impaired hospitalized patients. The company this year received government clearance for the “noddle,” a device that detects voluntary gestures in hospitalized patients and turns them into spoken words.
The noddle allows patients who cannot communicate traditionally due to limited motor capabilities to control up to three devices with a single touch. With just a tongue click, for example, a patient can call a nurse and communicate with a speech generating-device.
“Today 3.9 million hospitalized patients each year are unable to communicate through traditional means, which results in an estimated $3 billion in preventable adverse events,” said Rives Bird, CEO of Voxello, in a statement.
As speech technologies continue to improve and get more versatile, look for the industry to continue to respond to the needs of people with visual, hearing, or speech impairments, motion disorders, and other disabilities. Another area of focus is going to be expanding the employment opportunities for the 60 percent of visually impaired non-institutionalized Americans who are unemployed. Technology providers, employers, and disability advocates are all working together to develop systems to further remove disabilities as a job-limiting factor.
It's infiltrated homes in the form of smart speakers. Now, voice technology is poised to make a big splash in the workplace, as more companies adopt enterprise solutions like Alexa for Business and other speech-enabled tools and conversational interfaces designed to enhance productivity, manage common tasks, and improve communication.