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.
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?