Editorial and Comment

Litigation and chaos  »


Kevin Carey argues against the elite's use of regulation.

Brewing up a storm  »


Editor John Lamb wonders which way AT is blowing.

Access at a snail's pace  »


Two steps forward and one step back

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Crystal ball gazing

Recently, in Japan, I saw a pair of speakers to die for: the sound source was in the base of two elegant, glass tubes approximately 1.5 metres tall which contained a light source whose colour could be changed according to the time of day, the occasion or the mood.

The sound of a Beethoven Piano Trio was stunning. They are already being used in top restaurants and it won't be long before they banish ugly speakers from our houses.
It was the combination of the aesthetic and the functional which set me thinking of the breakthroughs which disabled people need, which are possible, which have even tentatively emerged, which seem to have disappeared but which should be a small but important part of our recovery strategy.
Automated data ranking.

I first saw a system 15 years ago that ranked email according to user behaviour; if you answered emails from Jim immediately they went to the top of the display; if you ignored emails from Brian they languished at the bottom.

The technology is so useful for people who can't see or who have physical disabilities as it cuts down the operation to click on what you want and get the job done.
This kind of ranking is good not only for email but also for default set-ups for electronic programme guides, topic searches, shopping lists and any kind of 'favourites' function. It's so obvious that I can't work out why it isn't more or less universal.

Around 2000 I told Guide Dogs for the Blind that by 2010 robots that could pick up GPS/LBS data, get you where you wanted to go, avoiding potholes and taking you safely across roads, would be cheaper and more reliable than Labradors.

I still can't work out why I was wrong. Sony's Aibo was launched in 1999 but was sold as a gimmick dog rather than a working robot and is, sadly, a casualty of the current down-turn rather than being seen as an icon of the recovery.
All the technologies for replacing dogs and giving blind people a much more reliable and flexible service which requires much less training and maintenance are in place; but nothing significant is happening.
In this case we must take into account the natural preference of the public for buying dogs rather than robots, even if the latter are better for the supposed beneficiaries but, even so, the failure is startling.

No less surprising is the continued failure to use location based services (LBS), the global positioning system (GPS) and camera technologies to help people remain independently mobile by linking them to remote monitors such as carers, family members or even specialist centres. One critical point of this kind of technology as it breaks the acute division between total independence and being housebound.

Another breakthrough in the Sony labs in the late 1990s was the beginnings of technology to react to gestures such that a wheelchair user could make a tiny gesture which would open a door. 

Indeed, one of the most obvious architectural failures of the past decade has been the slow growth in the use of automatic and 'intelligent' doors and windows, although the problems on trains tell a cautionary tale. 


Although we are familiar with the use of simulators for airline pilot training and in games technology, it seems not to have found its way into rehabilitation.  

From journey planning to seeing the detail of a building that natural vision can no longer provide, simulation uses the best of our design and visual technologies to break down the traditional barrier between depiction and reality in the analogue world.  

Direct Imaging

I wonder whether the Pentagon snaffled the early research on bypassing the screen so that a laser can transmit an image directly from source onto the retina, bypassing screen technology and the damaged parts of eyes. It sounds scary but, then, so did laser technology itself when it first emerged as an ophthalmological tool. 

If all of this sounds far-fetched, compare the state of IT 25 years ago and now. The disability sector needs the imagination to get beyond word processing. 

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