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March 9th, 2016

Why Wearables Are The Next Frontier For Accessibility

The joy of spatial awareness.

Wearables may still be on the cusp of mass adoption, but one of the world’s biggest car makers believes that the technology can change lives in the disabled community.

Toyota has built a wearable device that could give blind and visually impaired people a freedom of movement that the sighted take for granted. Project BLAID is a shoulder-mounted wearable fitted with cameras that survey the surrounding area and communicates relevant details to the wearer.

According to a blog post, the device is still a prototype and will need some fine-tuning before being made available to the public. Toyota said that Project BLAID is intended to fill in the gaps in spatial awareness that guide dogs, basic GPS devices and the widely used cane sometimes don’t account for, with the wearable designed for use in crowded indoor spaces such as offices and shopping malls.

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Project Inspired By Cars

The science behind the prototype is sound. Modern vehicles come equipped with an array of sensors that help drivers to park, analyze road conditions or even warn them when they are about to hit something. Project BLAID just takes that idea of spatial awareness generated by an inbuilt sensor and puts it into a wearable device.

Toyota Motor North America’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer Simon Nagata said that Project BLAID is a chance to make the everyday world more accessible. The device uses cameras to record the surroundings and communicate that data to the wearer through speakers and vibration. As an additional bonus, the device comes with Bluetooth functionality that allows a person to pair it with their smartphone.

The project is explained in more detail in this short video.

Anybody who is blind or visually impaired is more than aware that the world is a different place when you can’t see. Just walking down a street with a dedicated guide dog can be a challenge, often because the sighted are not always aware that a disabled individual is nearby. Freedom of movement is a right and not a privilege and the visually-impaired should have that right, Toyota said.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are around 285 million people globally with visual impairments—39 million are registered blind, 246 million have varying degrees of low vision. Blindness is at the top of the scale but severe visual impairment is on the rise as the population—especially in Western society—gets older and lives longer.

See also: 10 Apps That Are Designed For Mobile Accessibility

At first glance, the wearable looks more like a neck brace than an accessibility tool, but it does give the wearer a chance to negotiate an indoor area unaided. Toyota has worked on the wearable for four years and will be beta testing it in the near future.

project_blaid_accessibility

Project BLAID is just one of a number of projects that Toyota is involved with as part of its Toyota Effect. The car manufacturer is working with other companies and non-profit organizations to make a difference in society and accessibility is a big part of this initiative.

“Project BLAID is one example of how Toyota is leading the way to the future of mobility, when getting around will be about more than just cars,” said Nagata, “We want to extend the freedom of mobility for all, no matter their circumstance, location or ability.”

A Communication Tool For The Deaf

Toyota engineers are certainly not the only people who see an accessible future in wearables. A team of researchers at Texas A&M University has developed a device that translates sign language into speech, Reuters reports. The wearable uses sensors to record the motion of the hand when a deaf person “signs” with the communication tool sending a text-based message to a computer or smartphone via Bluetooth.

wearable_deaf

Source: Reuters, Wearable Tech To Decode Sign Language

Another project that is barely past the prototype stage, the research team said that the wearable would be able to learn from its user—mainly because no two people sign exactly the same. The sensors record the signed hand movements and the electromyography signals generated by wrist muscles that are then decoded by an algorithm to produce a readable message.

“When you wear the system for the first time the system operates with some level of accuracy,” said Roozbeh Jafari, an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the university, in an interview with Reuters. “But as you start using the system more often, the system learns from your behavior and it will adapt its own learning models to fit you.”

Jafari said the eventual aim is to incorporate the technology into a smartwatch so that it can translate more than just individual words. The team also wants to include a synthetic voice element, which may give the world’s reported 70 million deaf people a chance to speak for themselves.