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Tech and Disability: Can Mobile Apps Make a Difference?

March 15, 2017

When Microsoft produced its first Kinect device in 2007, designed to accompany the Xbox 360 released two years earlier, the tech world spent many months discussing how the gadget could revolutionise gaming. The device – which used a complex system of sensors and lasers to detect and process movement – was generally imagined as a tool for teenage boys, allowing energetic gamers to dive straight into a virtual warzone from the safety of their bedrooms.

But within five years, Kinect had found another purpose. Undergraduate engineers at the University of Pennsylvania mounted the Kinect on a belt, and created a device that helped blind people navigate through obstacles. The initiative was widely commended, and quickly won national awards.

Kinect’s story is a common one: a tech invention, designed originally for commercial profit, which was later adapted to meet the needs of a disabled community. Nowhere can this better be seen than in the world of mobile apps, which since their 2007 explosion have come to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives.

Mobile apps

Mobile apps traditionally focused on leisure and fun: the simple but addictive game Snake, launched by Nokia in 1998, became something of a global fascination, still remembered fondly by many of those who bought mobiles in the early 2000s. But developers gradually turned their attention to more philanthropic concerns, with each improvement of app technology later adapted into ‘assistive technology’, which helps those living with disabilities complete day-to-day tasks.

Now we have apps like the popular Aipoly, designed for the visually impaired, which uses artificial intelligence to identify common objects with remarkable accuracy. All you do is point your phone camera at an object – say, the coffee cup on your desk – and the app will tell you what it is. Totally free of charge, Aipoly also tells colour-blind users the specific shade of any given item.

But what about when you need to see something that isn’t as common as a cup – say, the expiration date on a bottle of milk? That’s where Be My Eyes comes in. Invented in 2015 by the partially-sighted Hans Wiberg, the Danish non-profit app allows blind or visually impaired users to send a live video of the text they cannot read to a volunteer, anywhere in the world, who will help them. It currently has over 32,000 blind users, and over 450,000 sighted volunteers.

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