CES Las Vegas Highlights Accessible Technology for the Blind

Blog Date: 
Tuesday, January 17, 2017

By: Clara Van Gerven, ‎Manager of Accessibility Programs at National Federation of the Blind

A little over a week ago now, President Riccobono and myself were at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. President Riccobono demonstrated the AIRA service in front of a large audience at the AT&T developer summit on our first day there, which made for a high-profile way to kick of the NFB's participation. There was, however, also time the next day, Thursday, to tread the vast exhibit floor. As has been the case in the past, the small and medium businesses are often those that make the biggest impression by dint of being approachable and not entirely constituted of PR videos. Whirlpool was showing off its Alexa integration for appliances and their booth personnel proved knowledgeable. While I would be a little reluctant to rely on wireless connectivity to operate my washer, it makes for a very appealing feature that lets users set and query the state of any of Whirlpool's current and next generation of connected devices.

There is now an accessibility area at CES, but accessibility is not solely found there; in fact, most of the devices of interest were elsewhere. AIRA's visual interpreter was at Eureka Park; and apart from VFO most of what we found that specifically targets blind users was to be found elsewhere. The Blitab tablet took persistence, but in the end we did get our hands on a prototype. It's an interesting technology, but the company behind it seems to have some gaps in its understanding of the US market, with their claims that tablets are currently inaccessible, and their plans for doing server-based translation into Braille. Another Braille device at the show was Bonocle, a single-cell Braille device aiming to be something of a virtual Braille display. Again, the concept is interesting, and I look forward to future iterations.

On Friday, the day started with President Riccobono participating in a panel on autonomous vehicles and their potential for people with disabilities. It proved a fascinating overview of the many scenarios where autonomous vehicles can now flip the script and cut down barriers to employment, healthcare and, yes, entertainment. The rest of the day was largely devoted to the automotive industry, and in learning more about what operating systems drive in-vehicle entertainment. As Android already drives much of this segment of the industry, accessibility would be easy to enable, providing a powerful example of how such interfaces can work for blind users. With that in place, the step to using autonomous vehicles would be a much smaller one.

With that, it was over already, and as traffic to CES has increased, as evidenced by the endless lines of vehicles everywhere, so has the attention for consumers who use alternate means of access. When I first went to CES, nobody had any idea of what I meant when I asked about accessibility. While knowledge still frequently lags behind awareness, this is now a rarity. Most companies now at least have a general acquaintance with the topic, and many can answer in-depth questions. Nor are blind people or those with disabilities rare at the show anymore, at least in part because of the efforts of the foundation arm of the Consumer Technology Association. It's further evidence of changing trends in the ongoing dance of electronics accessibility. Moreover, it shows the importance of the National Federation of the Blind being there to lead the way, and to be a voice for good and accessible design as the blueprints for the next big thing are drawn up, even as the evidence of our previous endeavors, such as the Blind Driver Challenge™, is already present.

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