I was pleasantly surprised to receive some guesses (yay, you read the previous blog!) as to what Jim thought was the technology that has made the most positive impact on the lives of people with vision loss in recent years. So let's see if you guessed right! Here is part 2 of 2 my conversation with Jim.
Daniel: What technology do you feel has made the most positive impact in the lives of persons with vision loss in the past decade?
Jim: Without a doubt, it's the iPhone. It gives access to all other technologies. If you are a Braille person you can work it with Braille. If you are a speech person you can work it with speech. Previously, there was no good way for blind people to text. Now you can use Siri. With GPS, I can say, "guide me to the nearest Tim Horton's" and I can put it on my belt or in my pocket and off I go. I can ask my iPhone to remind me to call the doctor tomorrow, or remind me to take out the garbage in the evening. Those things were not possible before. You can see the difference for people who do not want to embrace the iType technology, or Android. The people that have not embraced this type of technology are still dealing with half solutions. The other good thing about the iPhone is that it's portable.
Daniel: I think in several respects, your answer holds true for persons without vision loss as well when it comes to smartphones and apps. I especially like your last point about portability. It's amazing that so many of us carry around a computer (smartphone) in our pocket and have become so dependent on it. The evolution of cellphones has been quite fascinating. I still think back to the 1980s sometimes when I saw people using those big Motorola phones (e.g., DynaTAC 8000X). Sure, it looked like you were holding a water bottle to your face, but you were important *chuckle*. What do you think was the turning point when portable devices became relevant for people with vision loss?
Jim: I think for people with vision loss, one of the most important milestones in the development of portable technologies was the Rockbox software that could be installed on certain portable MP3 players enabling speech output. Being able to hear the MP3 player talk was amazing. Hearing the radio frequencies you were on and not just the radio. You could play all your music *and* hear the name of the song?! At that time I thought it was the be all and end all. Then, of course, Apple came out with the iPod nano. The nano uses voice clips of the file and menu names rather than text-to-speech (Voiceover). In any case, it was still pretty neat and we could all carry these devices where ever we went.
I like the fact that we are talking about technology and not just assistive technology (AT). There is definitely something to be said about building [mainstream] technology with people who are blind or partially sighted in mind rather than retrofitting devices in an effort to make them blind-friendly.
Daniel: An excellent point. I have always believed that because the product development cycle for many assistive technologies are generally much longer than mainstream technologies, that with the latter, there are a lot more opportunities for incremental improvements. Think about new models of smartphones that come out every year [though, it is important to mention that at least for today, there continues to be merit in assistive technologies as they may meet specific needs]. One thing we haven't talked about is the cost differences between mass produced technology and AT.
Jim: Yes, cost is definitely a key consideration. The difference between mainstream technology and AT could be thousands of dollars. The other problem is that you might not be able to receive technical support close by. Maintenance is also always a concern. I should say though regarding cost that it's getting a bit better especially when you can use accessible smartphones and tablets as platforms with other portable AT devices and apps. For example, if you are a business person with vision loss wanting to give a presentation, you don't have to carry around large bulky Braille books anymore. You can access and give a presentation by connecting a portable refreshable Braille display to a smartphone. The point about using apps that I want to say is that you have a lot at the tip of your fingers like dictionaries, bibles, podcasts, whatever you want. It's awesome.
Daniel: It would be nice if there could be a Braille display built into a mainstream portable device. That could be something for a forwarding thinking company to work on *hint, hint*. With that I want to ask, what technology would you like to see developed in the next several years?
Jim: I think something that is already down the pipe is wearable technology like Google Glass and their potential to be an aid for people with vision loss. In fact, I saw something very recently called OrCam (refer to link here: www.orcam.com) which was very interesting. I have not tested it so I am not sure when the dust settles whether this is something that will be useful or not, but the concept is very neat. It's basically a camera that's mounted on glasses which helps you interpret your surroundings and gives you the information audibly so that you can better navigate your environments – whether it be the grocery store, identifying buildings, traffic signals and so on.
Ray Kurzweil always said that one of these days, users will carry a little device that stores your stuff and talks to you. It seemed crazy at the time. Now it looks like we have found a place for it in front of your nose so you don't need to carry it in your hands. Very cool!
Do you agree with Jim regarding the iPhone? What do you think will be the next big technology breakthrough for persons with vision loss?