Podcast: The future of assistive technology

The Disability Download

What does the future hold for assistive technology? We hear how it’s changing the way we live our lives.

Nick Bishop chats to Leonard Cheshire Director of Assistive Technology Steve Tyler, who works with tech companies Google and Amazon to make their products accessible.


[Excerpts from later in the podcast]

Steve Tyler: You can see immediately that for people with significant speech impairments or [people] that can’t speak at all, then all of a sudden, I mean, this breakthrough makes massive, life-changing differences for people.

Podcast episode begins

Cathy Lynch: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I’m Cathy Lynch.

Erin O’Reilly: And I’m Erin O’Reilly. And on this podcast we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

Erin: Hi everyone. So, we’re still bringing you this podcast from lockdown. And so, we know that things are kind of changing around us and people are starting to resume some kind of normality but not really. But we’re still very much bringing this podcast from our separate homes. This month we’re talking about assistive technology. No doubt, during lockdown technology has been so crucial in everyone’s lives – allowing people to work, stay connected with friends and family; perhaps you got to play with new gadgets that you wouldn’t have had time for usually. But for disabled people assistive technology has been so important, long before lockdown

Cathy:  So this podcast has been taken over by our colleague Nick Bishop and Nick discusses all things assistive tech with Steve Tyler –  who is our Director of Assistive Technology, and also a kind of master in product design as well. And it's really interesting to hear his perspective because all of the things that make up an accessible product are actually really mainstream. And I think that's what really comes out of, and if this conversation with Steve. So if you're a tech geek, this is the podcast for you.

Erin: Yep. So how about we just get going? And let’s go over to Nick

Nick Bishop: I’m here with Leonard Cheshire Assistive Technology Director, Steve Tyler. Steve, how are you doing?

Steve Tyler: Doing fine, mate. Not too bad. In lockdown, as we’re recording this but we’re coming out of lockdown in a few minor ways. So it’s all a bit odd, isn’t it? Everyone’s got used to a new way of doing things, temporarily.

Nick: Indeed. Today we’re going to talk about the present and the future of assistive technology and I think no one is better placed than you to discuss that with me. So first of all, could you tell me about the current setup in your house? And then some future things that you think are really exciting and you're looking forward to. So, start with what it's like for you now in your home with your family.

Steve: Well, right in now my house, I suppose some of what I've got is a bit experimental and not quite ready for prime time. Some of it is much better than that. All the time, of course, it's a bit variable because –  as everybody is experiencing –  these things are continually updated, they’re continually changing.

So today in my house, I’ve got kind of relatively usual things for some people. So I experiment with Google Home and with Alexa and in and of themselves they are amazing. You can look things up on the web. You can, I don’t know – set reminders, set timers find, out about recipes, listen to any radio station on the planet, just by asking. You can listen to any piece of music on the planet just by asking. And if you can't ask, or you find that difficult, you can control these devices through other means -  whether it's through apps or through Windows on your computer.

And because you can control them through Windows, you can control them through really very specialist devices like switch technologies and things like that. So lots of options available, just in and of themselves, with the little box known as Google Home or Google Hub or any of the Alexa devices. But as you know, things are becoming even smarter than that. And now you can connect these devices to other devices. So you can begin to control the environment around you and your home systems.

Nick: There are pretty nifty ways of cleaning the house now. Tell people about your hi-tech solution.

Steve: I've got a robot vacuum cleaner. I can ask Alexa to tell the vacuum cleaner to hoover the house and she will do that. Or I can control the system with an app. So rather than pushing it along manually. I can gesture and control where the vacuum goes like that. If it gets stuck under a table or whatever: as visually impaired person I would never normally, unless I’m paying attention to where it’s gone, I wouldn’t necessarily know where it is was because it's quite small device, really. And of course if I come into the house and I'm alerted that it's got stuck, my first thought is: “well, where is it?” Now, I can ask it where it is, and it will beep to tell me. Those are the sort of subtle accessibility things that are gradually just becoming part and parcel of how technologists think.

The other thing in the house is the Nest suite of technologies. So this is a mix of security and well-being systems really. So, there’s a doorbell and the doorbell has a camera built into it and that means it's got face recognition. So it can recognise the family. It can also figure out things for itself. So it begins to recognise regular activities. It begins to listen out for unusual sounds or look for unusual motion. So, for example if it hears breaking glass, you get alerted that. I get to know, in short, who's coming to house and when; and when they came and left.

We’ve also got things like light control. And so we’ve got, in our case, Phillips Hue, but there’s a range of other types of lighting you can get. And you can do some fancy and not so fancy things with them. The beauty of the Philips Hue system is that the light bulb is Internet-enabled.

So literally you can screw a lightbulb into your lampshade, you know, on your coffee table, and call that your ‘coffee table’. And from then on you can control your coffee table lamp just by asking Alexa to do it all through an app. So you can literally say: ‘make the lights dim’ or ‘change the colour of the lights’ and you can specify what colour. And then you can do some really quite fancy things: like, if you're playing music for example, you can have light effects begin to happen based on the sound of the music that it's hearing.

Nick: Wow.

Steve: And then I have Sonos which is an entertainment system, very accessible.  So this is, I suppose it’s a multi-room, and you can make it as big or as small as you like. You just start off with one of them if you want to. But they’re speakers really and you can access different services and you can choose which services you want to access. But you know the usual thing to go for -  things like Spotify. There are lots of different music services. They all do the same thing, which is basically let you browse and search and listen to virtually anything that was ever recorded; and you can plug it into your hi-fi, you can connect to your TV and all of it is fully accessible.

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Nick: The TV seems really accessible. Tell me about that.

Steve: So I happen to have a Samsung TV, you can talk to it. It can talk back, you can gesture at it. So if you want to turn the TV over, there is a certain type of wave you can do and it will change the channel. If you can't do any of those things physically you can control it in completely different ways. Everything from plug-in eye tracking technology that will control it through to other types of gesture control like some switch controls. For example, and those things, I suppose that the interesting thing about all of that is that it's been very gradual.

The process for developing them and then them finding their way into our home has been not dissimilar to what's been happening over many years with the gradual change in our behaviour. So as time has gone on over the past 20 years, 25 years. One of the presentations I regularly do is to public audiences who are less technical, I suppose, is to say things like: “you remember 25 years ago before Amazon what the world was like then?” And how odd it was when Jeff Bezos and the team started selling products out of his garage. Started selling books that was the beginning of Amazon. Now it's this global entity which has begun to change the way we think of the world. It’s begun to set the bar and the benchmark for online shopping, and if you can be anywhere near as good as Amazon as a competitor you know you, your seen as doing something right these days. So it’s begun to change the way we think of things and way we behave, but that has led to, I suppose the technology becoming smarter.

You know, and as the technology has become smarter and by smarter, I mean more connected. And what many people use the phrase “ubiquitous technologies” so these are always connected, always on. You have to really think about it, it’s a bit like your mobile phone. You know, as you wander around with your mobile phone. You move into your house. It knows it's come back to your house because it knows where you live potentially.

It's phenomenally good people with disabilities because it can begin to learn technology, can begin to learn what is accessible for you. What is the most suitable way of delivering information for what you most likely to want to do in any given situation. The downside is, that means knowing an awful lot about you, and people quite rightly are concerned about that. But to me, you know, that's one of the very good reasons. We will want to be part of the action we want to benefit from what people with disabilities can access out of this stuff.

At the same time, make sure the protections are in place so that people with disabilities are represented around those tables that talk about data and access and all of that. So very exciting times and as always with challenges as well. And as with all technologies you know they bring good, bad, and different things. And what we are about, I guess, is making sure that we can benefit from everything that exists and protect people from the slightly dodgy things that also exist.

Nick: We also want to talk about the future of technology Steve and what you're excited about being in the future. Could you tell me about some devices or developments that you're looking forward to seeing?

Steve: Yeah so some of it I guess the easiest ones to predict, are the ones that kind of gradually move on from where we are now. So you know those things I earlier, you know they are set to become cleverer and there is a concept called ‘ambient intelligence’. This idea that you know devices today are computers in their own right, or they rely on connectivity onto the Internet.

Ambient intelligence, all of these technologies that are dotted around you are connectable in some way, and they share in so-called intelligence. And that begins to mean that they're less reliant on being attached to the Internet or the cloud and as long as they’re connected to something, they don’t really care. You can begin to operate more meaningfully and, of course, everyone will have heard about 5G.

More recently, so this is a connectivity system that will mean that you can get very high speed delivery of data in all kinds of stand-alone devices through the mobile network. And the beauty of that is, yet again this wireless don't need to be connected and these so-called ‘internet of things’, which is what the technology community refer to as household items that are connected. Whether it is your washing machine, or which will automatically. For example, do a wash when it's cheapest to do it. Or you your oven which connects to your fridge because your fridge knows what's inside it, because as you put things in it used the barcode reader or RFID tag reader to understand what's in there and knows what the use by date of the food that is inside of it is. And your oven can make recipes based on what's in your food cupboard or in your fridge. And these things been talked about for a while, but gradually they really are becoming possible to do and already we are seeing smart devices that can do a bit of that already. And that's set to continue.

Nick: Tell us more about smart surfaces.

Steve: I think people already have seen them in some regard, smart surfaces are sort of, the best example today it is wireless charging surfaces. So these are little mats or plastic surfaces. You just put them on a desk, coffee table or wherever and then you just put your phone on it at some random point, when you want, you don’t have to plug anything in, you don’t have to connect anything and you just dump stuff on there.

They’ve even created a smart surface based bowl, a bit like a fruit bowl so the idea is you just come in, put your phone and your keys and whatever else is in your pocket, you just put it all in and those things that need charging just get charged from being inside that bowl. Those smart services are becoming more interesting, because triggering events because you just touch it or sitting on your chair because you sit in a particular position.

Certain things happen automatically, exactly as you like them. You know your favourite news programme comes on because you sat your armchair and looked at the screen and through the eye gaze technology that it has built in, it begins to play what it thinks you like. All you already told it what you liked in advance, so you can begin to get a lot this automation making decisions for you or you pre-programming things in advance. These concepts are all reliant on the devices round you. Analysing the world, analysing how you behave.

Nick : I've heard you mention new foldable materials and a new type of phone?

Steve: There’s scrunchable materials and foldable materials. And we've seen this year and the very first genuinely foldable apparently glass screen-based mobile phone from Samsung that you can fold it up. And then are scrunchable materials, in fact, some of the new battery technology is scrunchable. In other words, the battery isn’t a regular shape that you'd normally expect. It literally is a piece of kind of scrunchable, literally material that you just squish your hand and shove into the hole in the back of the device and put the lid on and there you go, that’s your battery. And so lots of different form factors emerging.

On that new materials issue, I think one of the biggest and most amazing possibilities for people with disabilities just around the corner is 3D printing. But you can envisage I mean already, it's possible to print a prosthetic limb. For example, plastic materials, but of course, is nothing to stop using any type of material. And more complicated setups, so the idea is that you can share designs or create designs that currently don't exist, or you can personalise a product.

So I think the whole business of 3D printing and the possibility of sharing designs and creating systems is really, really powerful. Those are the types of things that are coming round the corner, but you can already see these emerging today is, so very recently, we are working with Google on making sure that we connected into this.

Nick: I want to talk about something that sounds quite sci-fi, computers interpreting thoughts from your brain. This is sometimes known as BCI or Brain to Cloud Interface.

Steve: So the broad idea is, you can if you can interpret brainwave patterns. Then you can do any number of things, and until very recently over the past two or three years, you’ve been able to do really quite basic things. I say ‘basic’ in inverted commas. Normally in labs, although some companies are beginning to sell this now, but you can think the lights on, and the lights will turn on. Or think them off and they’ll turn off or think the letter you want to appear on screen rather than typing it, and it will appear on screen.

More recently we've seen brainwave interpretation technology. At the moment it's quite relatively simplistic, it can understand between six and 800 phrases or words. You don't need to train on it, you don’t need to do anything you literally turn it on and plug it in and it will interpret what you door thinking those phrases or words that you’re thinking will be spoken using synthetic speech system. And you can see immediately that for people with significant speech impairments or for that can't speak at all, then all of a sudden, I mean, this breakthrough makes massive life-changing differences to people.

Yeah there are ethical and moral challenges with these technologies and good and bad in all of these things. And of course the whole idea of your brain being exposed to technology that can understand what you're thinking, at least some extent. Very scary area and we need to make sure that on the one level, people are being able to take advantage of that, while at the same time taking care of some of the inevitable moral issues that that's throwing up.

Nick: Sure and how do you think we do that?

Steve: Well by directing and guiding the technology. I mean that's partly why, you know, I'm so engaged on things like the Google strategy group and all of these things because we want to be part of that. We want to, rather than get what we’re given in technology land, I'd much rather we directed what was being developed and the way to do that is to make sure that the disability community is part of that development is actually engaged with it. We are making sure that they’re building into that technology, the advantages that it gives. While at the same time, you know, protecting people and making sure we understand how data is being used and what the implications of that are in future

Nick: Tell me about changes that were going to everyday transport.

Steve: Google, it's a very interesting entity just in and of itself isn’t it? But as we all know it's doing some really game-changing things around autonomous vehicle development. Driverless cars to me and you, making sure that they are going to be accessible is absolutely critical. I think you know it revolutionises transport options. For example, for people's disabilities, but only if we get it right. The development and design of those technologies and the eventual vehicles that come out of it, really are accessible. And you know the kind of data and so on, that they collect about us all, as all of these systems do already, insecure and controllable and there are checks and balances around all of that.

Nick: When do you think some of these things may be able to be seen by the ordinary person on the street?

Steve: The connectivity stuff is already of course, happening, and what I don't think will happen is that there will be an enormous revolutionary splash. That isn't normally how it works, you get these incremental changes and gradually before you know what's quite happened it’s there. Autonomous vehicles won't happen tomorrow, but certainly you will see incremental change and the effect is massive. It will change the way cities look, so the changes in culture and the way society works to begin with are subtly changed by technical development. And you look round and find actually 20 years down the track we’re living very, very different lives.

Nick: It’s a fascinating vision of the future and I hope we get to sit down in 25 years to see what it's like then but also very soon as well. Thanks very much Steve.

Steve: It’s a real pleasure.


Cathy: So thanks for that Nick and Steve. So if you're interested in assistive technology, do check our website because we have a couple of projects on the go, and our website always updated. So you can see how you can connect with us or learn more.

Erin: So this is also the second one of our Disability Download episodes that kind of focused on assistive technology. I think our last one was almost a year ago now. So if you like what you’re hearing, let us know because there’s so many things we could cover under this topic. If you want more on this email us at: disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org or by tweeting us @LeonardCheshire or Instagram @LeonardCheshire. As always, please remember to like, share, and subscribe to the podcast.

Cathy: I’m Cathy Lynch

Erin: And I’m Erin O’Reilly.

Both: And this has been The Disability Download.

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