The State of Assistive Technology

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Whether faced with communication challenges related to language barriers, cognitive or auditory impairments, or just an inability to verbalize effectively, today's consumers have a growing number of devices and applications that can help them hear, speak, and understand one another better than ever. These fall into an ever-growing category called assistive technologies.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) defines assistive technology as "any device that helps a person with hearing loss or a voice, speech, or language disorder to communicate." These includethe following:

  • Assistive listening devices (AIDs) that amplify sounds;
  • Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices that help people express themselves; and
  • Alerting devices that can be connected to a doorbell, telephone, or alarm and elicit a loud sound or blinking light to signal some event.

Aqsa Tabassam, a senior growth marketer at Brandnic.com, says that while assistive technology has obvious applications for people with disabilities, these tools can be used in a broader market to simply make life better. These can include speech translators that help to translate your words into another language.

The Year in Review

In 2019, an International Data Corporation (IDC) report highlighted three companies, Bragi, Nuheara, and Waverly Labs, that it says have taken traditional audio-centric hearable devices and augmented them with new features. While many such products are focused on streaming audio and phone calls, these three companies focused on using technology to help overcome the challenges some face with hearing or speaking. Nuheara, for example, is a hearing healthcare company that has developed situational-use hearable devices that augment a wearer's hearing in real time with amplification, noise reduction, and audio beamforming.

Another tool that attracted buzz in 2019 was ReadSpeaker TextAid. "It's a personal reading tool that can read any text like a scanned document, web page, etc,,"Tabassam says. "With it, you can listen to e-books while cooking dinner or read reports while sitting at the desk. It includes many high-quality voices and can translate for you."

Other tools have been around for some time but are increasingly improving. Tabassam points to Apple's AirPods as one example. "You can turn on the Live Listen feature, introduced in iOS 12, from your phone and AirPods will amplify the sound in your surroundings, helping you hear more loud and clear."

Kuldip Pabla, senior vice president of engineering at K4Connect, a technology company that creates solutions for older adults and the disabled, sees the aging population as an obvious growing market for assistive technology. And, Pabla says, "voice has had huge success in adoption by older adults." They like the ease of use it provides and how they're able to use it in natural ways.

Assistive technologies also have applications in the workplace. Getting Hired, a recruitment solutions provider that helps employers hire individuals and veterans with disabilities, notes that a wide range of devices, like the Amazon Echo and others, can be connected to tools within the workplace to make the environment accessible. Some practical examples of how these devices can aid those with disabilities include making calls, scheduling appointments, turning on or adjusting electric devices (i.e., a thermostat or light), and much more.

A Look Ahead

In 2020, Pabla predicts, voice technology will become an integral part of older adult's lives through proactive voice applications. "Current voice solutions require conversations to be initiated by an older adult. With the advancement in voice technologies and with the maturity of chatbots and custom digital assistants coming into the market, voice will bring a two-way conversation in 2020," he states.

Chatbots and digital assistants will be able to initiate conversations based on certain times of the day and, more importantly, certain events, Pabla says. In smart home systems, for example, bed sensors might be able to detect when someone gets up in the middle of the night and trigger a companion that can proactively reach out. Similarly, voice systems will offer many more natural features, such as casually reminding older adults to take their medication.

That same type of technology could also be more broadly used by anyone who prefers being proactively alerted to a wide range of events via voice. And, in fact, another trend that will continue to grow is the application of assistive voice technologies for non-disability-related uses.

Education is one example. "An increased focus on what has been traditionally seen as assistive technology [will] become more mainstream in the eLearning platform, including learning management systems. Universal design for learning [UDL] is increasing in popularity," says Paul Stisser, director of educational institutions and LMS partnerships at ReadSpeaker. Stisser hopes UDL trends can improve course completion numbers and student success.

Alex Kozhevnikov, co-founder and chief business development officer at VoxiAI, offers some additional predictions for the coming year. 2020, he says, "will become the year when voice technologies continue their growth." He points to the following developments:>

  • Speech-to-text technologies will simplify office tasks, such as planning a manager's time, searching for documents, or processing confidential information."With increasing recognition, depth of understanding, and quality of speech synthesis, voice interfaces will be integrated into almost all devices: dialogue systems in smart homes, cars, household appliances, avatars, phone assistants," Kozhevnikov says.
  • The growth of voice assistants."We are waiting for the explosive growth in the number of intelligent assistants in various business sectors," Kozhevnikov says, including commercial banking, telecommunications, retail, and other companies that actively interact with their customers.
  • "Speech analytic services will become better at recognizing emotions," Kozhevnikov says."Such services include a multimodal assessment of emotions that will increase the efficiency of the human-machine conversation."
  • The year will also see significant improvement in the quality of speech recognition, he says. "The number of errors in recognition will approach the human level."
  • Synthesized speech will become indistinguishable from human speech, and it will be possible to synthesize the voice of any person.
  • More solutions will be based on the end-to-end approach in natural language processing, Kozhevnikov says. While this will serve to speed up the execution of models and their quality, he says it will "worsen our understanding of what's inside."
  • Agrowing number of organizations will develop their own "sonic branding" or customized voices. There also is demand, he says, for higher-quality voices. "The old days of robotic-sounding voices are gone. Today's consumers want a user experience with human-sounding voices to bring a multimodal learning environment to their devices."

Linda Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer who writes for various business and trade publications. Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends, and more.

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