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Sunday, January 23, 2022 | 12:21 am
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Robotic Helping Hands: How Tech Can Help Us Triumph Over Disability

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Robotic Helping Hands: How Tech Can Help Us Triumph Over Disability

From voice-activated cars to virtual guide dogs and hearing aids that tap into the human brain, a raft of breakthrough devices are set to transform the lives of over one billion people around the world who have impaired hearing, visual, speech, or mobility problems.

Ultimately, even the effects of aging could be conquered by sci-fi-style breakthroughs.

With the Paralympics set to kick off next week, we’ve been investigating the technological innovations that can help humans triumph over disability.

Virtual Guide dog

Give the dog a rest — because Intel’s AI-powered, voice-activated backpack for the blind and partially-sighted uses a 4K spatial camera with an AI processor to capture distances as well as color images, with Intel tech for image processing.

In-built GPS detects, navigates, and informs users about signs, pavements, and other obstacles, with warnings fed into a Bluetooth earpiece. Clever, huh!

APH’s Mantis Q40 (£2,595, store.humanware.com), meanwhile, is a refreshable 40-cell braille display with a keyboard, and here’s the really cool bit — type and it speaks descriptions aloud.

Not to be left out, The Royal National Institute of Blind People has launched an accessible DAB+/FM radio (£99.99, shop.rnib.org.uk), with clear voice prompts to guide users through functions.

A USB port provides access to RNIB’s Talking Books service and it links with Alexa for audiobook access.

The Oticon More (from £1,650, oticon.co.uk) is the first hearing aid built with an onboard deep neural network. It can process speech in noisy places more like the human brain.

It’s been trained on 12 million real-life sounds to give the brain more of the information it needs to better understand speech. The new MyMusic feature amplifies music whether streaming or at a gig.

Cool hearing aids that double as in-ear buds? Signia’s Active (from £999, active.signia-hearing.co.uk) takes on the guise of a pair of truly wireless in-ear buds, shrinking the distinction between wireless earphones and hearing aids to match the style of younger wearers.

With music streaming via Bluetooth, excellent 26-hour battery life, and volume controls customized to each user’s hearing profile, these ‘hearing buds’ are controlled via an app and even take phone calls.

Meanwhile, Bose’s recently launched and first-ever SoundControl (£618, bose.com) hearing aids leave audio adjustments to the user.

Get moving

Arrow unveiled its SAM Suit exoskeleton at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed Future Lab. Designed specifically for paralyzed racing driver Sam Schmidt, this semi-autonomous suite boasts modifications that provide stability all the way up to Schmidt’s neck.

Sensors at his feet detect his stride and control his speed, allowing him to walk at a steady pace with an assistant.

Equally impressive is the SAM Car, a modified 2020 Corvette that Schmidt can operate independently using head controls and voice commands.

Lastly, a new robotic glove from BioLiberty uses artificial intelligence to boost muscle grip.

Using electromyography (EMG) measures the electrical activity created in response to a nerve’s stimulation of the muscle and the wearer’s intention to grip. An algorithm then converts that into force, applying the pressure needed to do a task, like holding a cup.

Smart devices

Apple recently rolled out sign-language tech support for customers to use sign language from Apple’s customer service reps.

AssistiveTouch (available on iPad and iPhone) allows Apple Watch users to navigate using gestures like clenching and pinching. It uses motion sensors and a heart-rate sensor to detect subtle differences in muscle movement.

iPad will soon support third-party eye-tracking hardware too, for easier control, and is adding support for bidirectional hearing aids to assist with hands-free phone calls.

Google is developing a new accessibility feature for Android that lets you control a phone using facial expressions. Called Camera Switches, users can smile, raise eyebrows or look up and down to access controls, including viewing notifications.

This takes pride of place among its other accessibility apps, including Live Caption that transcribes videos and audio on a phone in real-time, and Live Relay, which lets people who are deaf or hard of hearing make phone calls.

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