The contest, designed to stimulate the assistive technology industry, saw nine innovators battle for funding by pitching to a panel of judges. But could new innovations designed for those with disabilities end up changing how we all interact with technology?
The makers of Matopy certainly think so, who walked away with £48,000 after winning the “Inclusive Media” category for their Wii Remote enabled audio control system. Humans Invent had exclusive access to the event and spoke to the three winners.
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, if you’re unable to access that technology, the gap gets bigger and bigger
“We think that audio is a completely under-utilized way to communicate with computers,” said Sam Jewell, CEO of Matopy, who believes that blind people are ahead of the game; “early adopters” in the world of audio control.
Hywel Carver, head of tech at Matopy, said, “Audio is the first way that you start communicating. You speak and listen way before you read and write because it’s more natural and it’s faster. It’s also more expressive as well.”
He continues, “We think reading and writing should become a redundant way to access news. We think everyone will be speaking and listening and in the short term the blind community is the first group of people who will most obviously benefit from this.”
Their audio magazine improves upon screen readers by incorporating the semantic information contained in graphic design into their interface- so a different voice is used to read the headline to the main body of the text, and the user navigates across different sections of the paper with a flick of the wrist using the Wii Remote or a swipe on a touchscreen.
“You’ve got to retain that information, that structure in the audio if you want to make it as functional and easy to use,” said Jewell. “Where you recognise a heading visually, you’ll be able to recognise it audibly as well.”
Next up was Spiral Scratch, the winners of the ‘Sensory Assistance’ category who presented their app which uses image recognition technology to allow blind and visually impaired users to navigate the last ten yards of their journey.
Alistair Buchanan, director of Spiral Scratch, said, “Most people can get to the general vicinity of where they want to be, but they struggle from there to get to the door.”
While a taxi or GPS might get you very close to where you want to be, finding the actual door can still be a challenge for those with visual impairments. “This is the last ten yards problem,” said Buchanan. “The way it works is you have a smartphone and it matches the images it sees with the Google Street View image and from this we can work out their location and orientation and produce some instructions to guide them to the door.”
Buchanan hopes this software will provide more independence for the visually impaired: “It’s all about giving people a greater degree of independence so you don’t have to ask for help every single time.”
Smart Hub by Therapy Box won the “Accessible Internet of Things” category with their home automation system.
“The Smart Hub is an accessible interface so that people can control the things around their home,” said Rebecca Bright, director of Therapy Box. “It would interface with a lot of off-the-shelf home automation products to control your lights or your heating.”
The app, which is a control station for the smart home, allows you to access a whole range of connected products in one place.
“It will plug in with existing off-the-shelf smart home products that you can buy in B&Q,” said Bright. “People with even quite significant disabilities will be able to control their home environment,” she added.
We think that audio is a completely under-utilized way to communicate with computers
The Digital Inclusion Innovation Contest was set up by IC Tomorrow, a programme by the Technology Strategy Board based in East London’s “Tech City”. Matt Sansam, programme manager of IC Tomorrow spoke to us about the philosophy behind the project:
“As technology becomes more ubiquitous, if you’re unable to access that technology, the gap gets bigger and bigger,” said Sansam. “That was one of the key challenges for this competition, to encourage digital companies to think about inclusion and also to see if they could come up with innovative ideas to solve and bridge that gap. It opens up a wider commercial market. There’s a good commercial potential for those solutions.”
The winners will now develop their prototypes with the aim of running a three month trial. Watch this space.