Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Assistive technology continues to evolve, becoming more mainstream

Most often, the steps that assistive technology uses to make computers accessible to people with disabilities is to allow them an alternative method of inputting information into the computer. This is true for screen readers, which allow the operator to use keyboard commands to perform mouse executions; speech input, which allows hands-free computer operation; thought-actuated computer programs, which can execute computer functions by mere thought; head pointers that let people without arm functionality point to the screen to execute commands; and, the various alternative mice that are on the market, which use footpads and other methods to allow input and do not require hand or fingers to operate them.

I’ve recently written posts highlighting advances that demonstrate how
Assistive technology has become more mainstream,
and, more recently, how
Man and machine are integrating much more than ever before.

In that last post, I was struck by the words of the reporter who was chronicling those events on a morning news program. He said that the way technology often works is that it is developed to meet a medical need first, and is very expensive. Then, later it evolves into something more affordable when it becomes more mainstream and applications are developed for the general public.

Immediately, I thought of botox. It was used first here in the U.S. to relieve spasticity in people who have various forms of dystonia. I was actually a little floored when a friend who got botox treatments for her cerebral palsy first told me about the medication and that it was derived from the toxin in botulism cells. That was several years ago, prior to botox becoming legalized for cosmetic applications. Today, you can’t turn on any television celebrity gossip show that doesn’t discuss the latest star getting botox treatments as cosmetic surgery.

Then, I looked at the marvels of assistive technology, just as the reporter was intending. And, here today, I offer proof of the reporter’s assessment.

First, The BBC reports about how
headset controllers using thought and emotion actuation
are the coming trends for gamers. And, as the reporter predicted, the unit is refined from the older versions, which were assistive technology of a unique sort. It no longer requires electrode arrays with gel on the scalp. And the cost is projected to be only $399, not the tens of thousands of dollars previous versions have cost to provide alternative computer input.

Do I think the technology in the gamer’s headset is comparable to that of somebody who would use thought input to operate a computer? Not at all, at least not yet. We all know that technology evolves, and this is equally true for assistive technology. Give it time and the gamer’s unit in just a few years will outperform the current assistive technology devices of today by leaps and bounds. And, I predict this will be mutually beneficial, providing greater accessibility and lowering costs for all.

Additionally, good old Microsoft is looking to its next big thing, called Windows 7 (for now,) which will incorporate input via
speech and touch.

Here again, if Microsoft is putting something into its system, eventually we will all have it. If not from Microsoft, then it will be from other computer companies that will offer their version just to stay competitive.

And, while robots aren’t exactly mainstream yet, understanding how a robot learns and
applying that to the ultimate robotic hand
definitely has broad implications for the future of prosthetics and assistive technology.

Perhaps that reporter was correct.

Note: Thanks to the editors of
For the original information about the robotic hand.)

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