Will the Law Require Augmented Reality for the Disabled?

More than 50 million Americans – 18% of our population – have some form of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was adopted to ensure, among other things, that no one is “discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” (42 U.S.C. 12182.) The law has required public and private entities across the country to make a number of significant accommodations in the way they do business, and modifications to their physical structures. to assist disabled individuals.

By and large, the ADA has received broad, bipartisan support, and has even been strengthened over the years. But it still generates occasional controversy. The Department of Justice, for example, recently provoked criticism by requiring hotels to install costly wheelchair lifts in their swimming pools. And on March 23, 2012, a federal judge in California allowed the Greater LA Council on Deafness to proceed with a lawsuit against CNN for failing to provide close captioning for videos on its website.

What seems clear, though, is that as the technological means for giving disabled individuals equal access to everyday activities becomes more feasible, ADA regulations will start requiring governments and businesses to use them. We who follow the augmented reality industry already appreciate AR’s potential for radically enhancing everyone’s experience of the physical world. As other industry forecasters have already said, that will certainly include the disabled–people for whom reality is already “augmented” in a negative way.

So how might AR technologies be used in the near future to augment life for disabled individuals?

The Deaf. AR-infused eyewear has the potential to radically enhance life for deaf individuals by essentially close-captioning anything and everything in life. Television already provides the most basic example of AR: the on-field graphics in NFL broadcasts. I often describe AR as taking that concept and applying it “to everything, everywhere.”

Combining AR eyewear with speech recognition software would likewise take the concept of close-captioned TV and apply it to everything, everywhere. The person wearing the equipment would see the words of someone speaking to them superimposed on their field of vision in more-or-less-real time. Obviously, technological barriers to such devices still remain. Software would need to improve, and it would need to sync with directional microphones that could isolate the speaker’s voice from the background noise. But the impressive quality of voice recognition products like Dragon Naturally Speaking and Siri bring hope such a product is not far off.

And, of course, voices are not the only sounds that deaf people could benefit from “hearing.” AR devices could be programmed to recognize and alert to the telltale sales of oncoming traffic, traffic control signals, music, alarms–all the sounds that others take for granted every day.

The Blind. Games like Inception the App, which “uses augmented sound to induce dreams,” already promise to digitally augment our sense of hearing. AR devices could accentuate the hearing of blind individuals in a way analogous to the visual information it could provide for the deaf. Users could receive audible alerts when they come into proximity with a person, vehicle, traffic control device, sign, or any of a hundred other significant objects. Next-generation versions of such apps as Google Goggles and Word Lens might be able to read and audibly translate signs and other writings directly into spoken word, without the need for Braille.

An even more radical version of this idea has already been proposed by Dr. Peter Meijer, a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands. Called the “vOICe,” his device promises “synthetic sight” by essentially hacking the brain to accept audio signals as visual images. Accoring to Meijer’s website, “neuroscience research has already shown that the visual cortex of even adult blind people can become responsive to sound, and sound-induced illusory flashes can be evoked in most sighted people. The vOICe technology may now build on this with live video from an unobtrusive head-mounted camera encoded in sound.”
Of course, audio signals are not the only way to enhance life for the blind. Those who read Braille could still benefit from enhanced haptic technology such as that been developed by Senseg. In theory, the feel of virtually any surface could be augmented with additional sensory feedback, including in the Braille language. Therefore, a blind person wearing a haptic glove could “feel” Braille text on any surface, without that writing physically being there.
The Physically Handicapped. Digital information alone can’t do anything to increase the mobility of those with physical impairments. But better databases and wayfinding applications could make it a lot easier to find the accommodations designed to make their lives easier. For example, Mapability, an existing data layer on the Layar browser, helps the disabled locate the nearest wheelchair-accessible venue.
Those With Cognitive Impairments, Learning Disabilities, and Emotional Trauma.  One study in Ohio created simulated environments to aid the rehabilitation of those with traumatic brain injuries and other cognitive impairments.  Simililarly, Helen Papagiannis–a designer, PhD researcher and artist specializing in AR–has written an AR pop-up book designed to let those suffering from phobias directly encounter their fears in augmented space.
The possibilities for AR in the educational field are seemingly endless.  Jeremy Roberts at PBS has been on the forefront of augmented education for some time. He presented his ideas at the ARE conference last year, and summarizes them in this video as well.  He is particularly passionate about AR’s ability to teach principles of physics through interaction with virtual objects that behave as if they were in the real world.  Brian Mullins, CEO of daqri, is another passionate advocate of AR’s potential for education.  He speaks often of a Matrix-like world in which knowledge on any desired topic can be instantly downloaded and explained in three dimensions.
Although these techniques offer new worlds of possibilities for all kids, the potential is particularly tantalizing for kids with learning disabilities and other barriers to comprehension.   Educators are currently limited in what they can offer by such pesky constraints as budgets, resources, and the laws of physics.  AR overcomes those barriers by virtually replicating and allowing students to meaningfully interact with anything they can imagine.  Kids who need to learn through particular senses can have their instruction tailored to those needs.  There may soon come a time when augmented methods of instruction are on the table at every special-needs kid’s Individualized Education Plan meeting (IEP), a process required by another federal statute–the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Question: What do you think will be the first AR device that employers or owners of public accommodations will be legally required to provide for the disabled?