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From 3D radio to disruptive innovation: evolving assistive technology at ATEC

Earlier this month, the second ATEC (Assistive Technology Exhibition and Conference) event took place, held in Sheffield, UK. A wide range of figures from the assistive technology (AT) industry were in attendance, including e-Access Bulletin.

Here, we present an overview of some of the many thought-provoking seminars and workshops that took place throughout the day.

The opening conference keynote speech was delivered by Hector Minto, senior technology evangelist for accessibility at Microsoft. Minto explained that there is now mandatory accessibility training for all Microsoft employees, but said that looking at the wider employment picture in society, “It’s absolutely clear that most people don’t consider accessibility in their role.”

Microsoft and other influential organisations have a part to play in changing that, he said: “The role of Microsoft and the largest companies around the world is to demonstrate clear starting points for accessibility, as well as improving what we’re doing over time.”

Minto also claimed that we have become “technologically blasé” in recent years, meaning that accessibility products, services and functions aren’t always publicised or exposed as well as they should be. “We almost just expect these advances to come so thick and fast that we don’t stop to tell people about them,” he said.

Gareth Ford Williams, head of accessibility at the BBC, gave the second conference keynote speech. Williams began by pointing out that “we all have accessibility requirements,” before talking about how the BBC’s access services have evolved.

While early access services like subtitling and sign-interpreted content are still widely used, ‘future content’ will be delivered through formats such as multi-screen and 3D radio, meaning that new forms of access services are needed, Ford Williams said. For example, increased used of virtual reality (VR) presents challenges for subtitling, as traditional subtitling will not work in a VR environment. “Content is rapidly evolving and there is a need for AT that responds to this change,” said Ford Williams.

In some cases, the methods used in providing ‘future content’ can also assist in accessibility. Binaural recording, a technique used in 3D radio (which immerses users in audio content, meaning that they hear sound from all around them, as opposed to one source), is now being used by BBC teams to create an immersive VR experience, replicating aspects of how people with autism experience the world. This project is planned to be used as a training tool for managers at the BBC, to give them a more in-depth insight of the experiences of employees with autism.

John Lamb of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and Ability Magazine delivered a session on the challenges facing the AT industry. He concluded by talking about new and emerging technologies that can benefit people with disabilities. These included 3D-printing, wearable technologies, driverless cars, robots and digital navigation aids such as the Wayfindr system – reported on in the June 2016 issue of e-Access Bulletin (read our Wayfindr Q&A at the following link: ).

David Banes, director of David Banes Access and Inclusion Services, hosted a fascinating seminar on ‘Accessible technology in an era of disruptive innovation’. Defined (in relation to technology) as something that displaces an established technology and produces dramatic, revolutionary change, disruptive innovation is already affecting the AT industry in a huge way, Banes said.

Commonly cited examples of disruptive technology models include transport service Uber and homestay accommodation network Airbnb. Both have shaken up their respective markets and both have been beneficial to users with disabilities, Banes said.

One of the most significant changes that disruptive innovation has brought to the AT market is a shift in traditional business models, said Banes: “There is increasing growth in free and low-cost solutions. These are now expected, and the market expectation of what people will pay has changed massively,” he said.

To demonstrate this, Banes gave an example of his time working in Qatar, where he was CEO of the Qatar Assistive Technology and Accessibility Center: “I worked with blind people who told me that they could achieve 90% of what they needed to do online every day, including work, using only their iPhone with VoiceOver. One person said: ‘I don’t know if I will ever buy a screen-reader again.’”

What is now important, said Banes, is how the AT industry responds to disruptive innovation. He gave three key steps that the industry needs to take in this respect: pay more attention to research from a wider range of sources; be willing to change traditional business models; and work to understand the broader, evolving needs of customers.

Banes said: “Many people with disabilities are beginning to see disruptive innovation as an opportunity, not a threat. This is a chance to get the things they want, at a price they can afford, at the time they want it. It’s going to bring short-term challenges for the AT industry, but it will have a huge impact.”

Some of these sentiments were echoed in ATEC’s closing Q&A panel session. Lucy Ruck – manager of the Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce – spoke about the increasing prevalence of inclusive design: “AT is disappearing to some extent, because of the inclusive design approach that we’re encouraging organisations to take. Inevitably, that’s going to have an effect on AT suppliers.”

Later in the session, a delegate from Barclays asked the panel a question that had been touched on in many discussions throughout the day: “What can the AT industry do to support the needs of older consumers?”

Gareth Ford Williams’ answer summed up what many had been thinking: “This issue is going to affect everyone. We’re an ageing population and part of the ageing process is a decline in all our faculties – cognitive, physical and sensory. It’s part of getting old. [The solution is] about designing for your own future. Get it right now and you’ll have a much better future.”

Read more about ATEC at the event website: .

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