Voice Assistance: Enabling a Whole New World
Stephen Cluskey is an award-winning entrepreneur, TEDx and public speaker, disability advocate and everything in between. Here he shares his thoughts on how voice technologies and good design are lowering the barriers to accessibility.
How often have you used a remote control for your TV? Or a key fob to lock and unlock your car? Or sailed through an automatic door at your local supermarket?
Have you ever stepped back for a couple of seconds and thought – wow - this little device, this automatic door, has made things so much easier for me.
Rarely, I’d imagine (like most of us).
That’s what great design does. It slots seamlessly into our busy lives, making things so much easier, without us even noticing.
Would you believe me if I told you that the products mentioned above (a remote control, key fob and automatic door) were all originally designed to make life easier for someone with a disability.
It’s amazing when you think of the positive impact these designs have had on everybody’s lives.
We are now on the cusp of a new revolution in the next seamless life enhancement - voice – and the possibilities for ‘everyone’ are incredibly exciting.
Smart speakers and quality of life
Thinking beyond our voice enabling Alexa, Google assistant or Siri to tell you a rubbish joke, give you weather updates, or play you the latest Taylor Swift song, this technology has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of more than a billion people globally with a disability, as well as those with accessibility needs who don’t even realise it.
This is about enhancing the life of your grandmother who struggles to open the window shades, your father who has arthritis and finds it difficult to change the TV channels. It’s about your husband or wife who is holding their six-month-old child and needs to find information without using their hands. It’s about your brother or sister who forgot their eyeglasses and can’t read a recipe. And it’s about those with much greater accessibility needs.
And we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Lowering the costs of accessibility
As a person who lives with complete paralysis, technology plays a vital role in my daily routine, supporting me to live a ‘normal’ and hugely fulfilling life. Until now, ‘assistive technology’ (which is sort of a nice way of saying technology for someone with a disability) has been very expensive and extremely narrow focused.
Let me give you an example – I was lucky enough to have been able to build a house in 2010, and I was even luckier to have been able to include some nifty assistive technology at that time.
This technology, which cost €10,000’s, enables me to perform basic tasks which we all take for granted - like turning on and off the lights, opening doors and controlling the TV all from a computer. The module for controlling one light cost more than €1,000.
Fast forward 10 years and the change in what’s affordably possible in assistive technology (now a mainstream concept) is dramatic.
Jumping on Amazon, I can purchase an Alexa speaker, a smart control unit with a smart light bulb for less than €150, and be controlling the lights in my house with my voice within 15 minutes of that package arriving! It’s simply incredible.
I can buy a smart lock, a voice-enabled remote control and a voice controlled motor for the window shades, and have all the functionality (actually even more) that was originally installed in my house, at 1/10 of the cost.
Inclusive by design
These products were all designed to make life that little bit easier for the general consumer, but the knock-on effects for those with disabilities has been dramatic.
Incredibly – designers are designing for those with the highest needs, without even realising it!
This is the concept of universal design. In a nutshell, designing to make life as easy as possible, and considering everyone in that design.
And some organisations are pushing the limits of what’s possible.
Microsoft, for example, have designed a universal game controller which anyone can use. It enables you to set up whatever configuration of the controller best suits your needs. For people with limited arm movement, finger dexterity, or even those with no arms, you can add switches and large buttons to find a configuration which works for you. Game changing (terrible pun I know!)
And even the box that this controller comes in is universally designed – they have designed the box to make it as easy to open as possible – who wouldn’t benefit from this!
This is the type of thinking that leads to solutions which will benefit everyone in society.
Let’s see where this new technology takes us, but one thing is for sure, when we design for those with the greatest needs from the outset, ultimately everyone benefits.
You see, for most people, technology makes things easier. For someone with accessibility needs, it makes things possible.
Stephen Cluskey is an award-winning entrepreneur, TEDx and public speaker, disability advocate and everything in between. His company Mobility Mojo is revolutionising accessible travel for millions of people, giving everybody the confidence to go where they want to.
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