“Oh my God, this touch-screen is driving me crazy!”
“I wish they made things bigger – not always obsessed with miniaturization”
“How do you order things online? It’s so complicated”
I am sure you have heard such things from people who are differently abled. Shaking fingers don’t find touch-screens comfortable to deal with. Poor eye-sight makes some people strain themselves very much to read even Contacts on their phones.
Let’s face it. Most businesses cater to the needs of the young, urban users. They focus on the “happening world”. Others are not considered central to money-making, though it is nice to see some CSR initiatives.
Others? Did I say “Others”? Well, in some ways, I am part of the “Others” already! And if the laws of the world and life and statistics are to be trusted, so will you be, eventually.
There are many who are differently abled. While some suffer due to the natural aging process, there are others who, unfortunately, suffer due to some ailments. Many technologies are already around to help them. Reading glasses, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheel-chairs, escalators, Braille, … there are so many of them. Yet, there is a gap between usage of new technologies by “normal” people and these “Others”.
In this post, I write about old people and usage of gadgets. But it is equally applicable to other situations as well.
What does an old person need in a phone?
Old people are comfortable with a big device, a big screen, big fonts – and yet it should not be heavy. They need short-cuts for frequently-accessed applications/contacts. They prefer pictorial guides, not text. They don’t like touch-screens, and yet they need those features! They don’t care so much for games. They would perhaps like to close their eyes and enjoy soothing music, but don’t like to go into complicated GUI to access them.
Old people need video chats, not just have fun with them. They may not care for real-time, high-data-rates, etc. but they do want the experience frequently. Like normal people, they also need banking services, payment services, etc. but want them to be very easy to operate.
One critical need for the differently abled people is health monitoring and safety. Their health needs not just to be monitored but also managed, sometimes remotely. At the same time, it is not comfortable for them to wear many sensors all the time. Monitoring must be seamless.
These and many other needs are somewhat “obvious” to the well-informed reader. Most of these features for the end-user may be needed even for normal people in some constrained situations. Let us now briefly view the solution space.
- Need to recognize the user is old, for other suitable features to be automatically enabled?
Pattern recognition, specifically facial feature recognition enables Age-detection. While face detection ability is considered a given nowadays, facial features can be extracted from images and analyzed to guess the age of the user.
- Need a big screen?
DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) related technologies enable pushing a display from a small phone-display to a TV nearby. One needs to provide a easy UI for this already-commercialized technology.
- Need touch-screen features for the shaking hands?
Perhaps we can reduce the sensitivity of response to touch and increase the area covered by one “selected” button/icon. The display layout will need to be re-designed too.
- Hard of hearing?
It is possible that the user (a TV-viewer, for instance) may be suffering from hearing loss, or that the environment is very noisy. In either case, one may need technological assistance to follow the program. The software may be able to locate a server with sub-titles corresponding to the program currently running, stream it and overlay on top of the video being watched.
- Need to hear in a familiar voice and language?
Translation is being done almost routinely and in real-time as a service in several parts of the advanced world. One can modify the speech / speaker parameters to produce another speech-stream in a chosen voice. Also, speaker recognition tells you who the speaker is in a conversation.
These and many other technologies are in the fore-front of research efforts. With focused efforts, there is no reason why they can’t be packaged appropriately for the differently abled people. For large-scale deployment to happen, there may be challenges related to economies of scale. How to make money by making these products and services? Can we develop solutions purely as downloadable software for many requirements? Can these be made available as software services?