Accessibility in Tech and Innovation

If you missed Microsoft’s Super Bowl commercial, “We All Win”, I’d highly recommend you give it a view. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The extend version of Microsoft’s 2019 Super Bowl commercial

In the commercial, Microsoft puts their new adaptive Xbox controller, which is made to be accessible to people with disabilities, on full display. The commercial features a number of kids who have been able to use the accessible controller, as well as interviews with their parents.

The new adaptive Xbox One controller

“He’s not different when he plays,” says one father of his young son in the commercial.

While effectively tugging at the heart strings, this commercial shows that Microsoft’s capability to build adaptions to their technology that make them more accessible to all people. In addition to the physical controller, Microsoft offers a number of other features to make Xbox gaming accessible to all. For example, there is a ‘Narrator’ feature that reads screen text to the user and a ‘Copilot’ feature that allows a user to pair two controllers in an effort to make them easier to use. As technology continues to take over so many aspects of our lives, it will be important to remember that the newest innovations must not leave any members of our society behind.

Microsoft’s accessibility controller is an example of how design can make products physically accessible to all people. However, many other companies have recently introduced new features with members of the disabled community in mind.

Last week, Google came out with live transcription and sound filtering accessibility features for Android. In the video below, Google research scientist Dimitri Kanvesky, who is deaf, talks about the development of the live transcription app and shows how it can be used. As is mentioned in the video, the technology behind this kind of live transcription already existed, but this new app makes it easily accessible to Android users.

Dimitri Kanvesky modeling the Live Transcribe Android App

In the video, users are shown holding their phones open to the Live Transcribe app, which presents text, converted from the speech of the person with whom they are speaking, on the screen in real time. One man who is deaf says that he has used the app to more easily communicate with his young sons, who don’t know a lot of sign language. The app also offers features to make it simple to use. Dieter Bohn of The Verge reported that the app is relatively straightforward and easy to use. He was impressed with how accurate it was in transcribing speech to text; it can even understand context clues to add correct punctuation and capitalization, for example. Although the app requires an internet connection, it can recognize 70 different languages. In response to potential privacy concerns, Google said that they do not and will not save or record the audio or transcriptions through this app.

Google’s new accessibility features

The other app, Sound Amplifier, is available inside the accessibility settings of Android phones. It allows users to customize the sound coming from wired headphones. They can change sound distribution between right and left ears, adjust fine tuning, and change the outside sound reduction capabilities of the headphones. Apple has implemented similar capabilities with AirPods.

The examples of Google’s newest apps do not necessarily represent groundbreaking advancements in the world of technological accessibility. They are good examples of how tech companies can implement features and be mindful in their designs in order to make their products accessible for all people.

In addition to accessible apps and physical design, another way to make technology more available to people with disabilities is through representation. Last year, Apple proposed a number of new emojis that add representation of people with disabilities, including a person in a wheelchair and a person signing the word deaf. They were just recently approved to go into use on iPhones.

Some of Apple’s new proposed emojis

Apple has included a number of other accessible features in their products for years, so this is not necessarily a change from previous trends. Like the announcement of Google’s accessibility apps for Android, this represents a movement towards making tech products accessible for all people, as well as a blueprint for how to keep all communities in mind when designing new products and innovations.

When discussing this topic, it is worth it to note the subtle difference between accessible technology and assistive technology. Accessible technology makes current technology and tech features on existing products available to all people, regardless of any disability. Assistive technology encompasses software and other features designed to help people with disabilities during daily life.

Innovations don’t have to be specifically geared towards being accessible or assistive technologies to make a difference. For example, Amazon’s Alexa can be a helpful technology for the blind. Blind people can use the Alexa to control things around the house and to perform daily routines that otherwise may have required human assistance. As we all know, the Alexa can order food, set timers, tell the weather, keep a schedule, and perform multitudes of other tasks. To sighted people, these may seem like things that are helpful, but not revolutionary. To blind people, such innovation can change the routines of their day in a major way.

Creating accessible technology is not limited to tech giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon. There are many startups operating with the goal of making accessible and assistive platforms and products.

Venture capital and startups building assistive technologies

The graph displayed here, courtesy of crunchbase news, shows trends in venture capital funding for startups building assistive technologies between 2012 and 2017. The crunchbase article highlights a number of startups working in this sector, including User1st, a startup which provides software services to companies looking to make their websites accessible for all people.

The broad nature of challenges presented to disabled people cannot all be fixed through one single technology. However, changes like Microsoft’s accessible Xbox controller, Google’s newest live transcription and sound amplifying apps, and Amazon’s Alexa all represent steps in the right direction. All tech companies can and should design their products with accessibility in mind. The recent news discussed in this blog post shows that the movement towards creating accessible technologies may be continuing to grow in the tech and entrepreneurship communities. After all, Microsoft based their Super Bowl commercial around their specific product that makes the Xbox more accessible.

And as the tagline of that commercial reads, “When everybody plays, we all win”.

9 thoughts on “Accessibility in Tech and Innovation

  1. Nice Post! I really like the point you made in the blog “the newest innovations must not leave any members of our society behind.” While tech has transformed people’s lives and makes everything more convenient and efficient, it is crucial to consider all customers’ experience and accessibility to the products. Thank you for bringing up this topic and those commercials all great!

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  2. Really great post. I think it is so important for people to think about how technology can be used to alleviate some of the problems that someone with a disability goes through daily. I am now noticing a lot of social media campaigns, such as Tommy Hilfiger having adaptive clothing with magnets instead of buttons to have people put shirts on easier, as well as a company that makes a spoon that helps people with tremors eat easier. I think there is so much more potential so thank you for bringing this topic up!

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  3. I think it’s easy to forget that some of the innovative technology is not as easy to use by people with disabilities, so I’m glad to see that there are companies pushing for things that will not only be able to be used for those with disabilities, but could help them in their day to day life (like how the Live Transcribe app helped a deaf father communicate with his sons). I think this is an important topic to keep in mind as more and more technology is developed to make everyone’s lives easier, we need to ensure that EVERYONE is benefiting from these technologies and not feeling left behind due to a disability.

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  4. Really great post. Apple is doing quite a bit with accessibility too. Two years ago we were at Apple during accessibility week, and we saw a demonstration of a bunch of cool stuff they were working on.

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  5. Great post! I glad you shed light on accessible technologies. I have always been interested in technologies that help those with disabilities. My grandfather actually co-invented ‘EagleEyes’ which helps people with severe physical disabilities to use computers, using their eyes as the mouse (which is used at the BC Campus School). I am glad that many companies, big and small, are focused on this type of technology.

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  6. Really cool concepts here for accessibility and inclusion. Technology can do so much to help those around us in society and it is important that technology works to bring us all together rather than divide us. I’m intrigued to see how incorporations of AR/VR in the next transformation of technology really bring this concept to life! Great post!

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  7. This was my favorite commercial during the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, accessibility is something that product developers can quickly forget at these game-changing companies. Excellent timing by Microsoft to promote this product in a frenzy of battle-royale style gaming. Win-win for everyone.

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  8. Such a touching post. I regrettably admit that I never thought about the problems that disabled people endure when it comes to entertainment like video games. I would love to see this Xbox controller in action and wonder if competitors will match the design or come up with their functionality. Accessibility is definitely something everyone must keep in mind as we go forward.

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  9. Awesome post! I loved getting to see the effort companies are making to ensure their technology can be utilized by a wider variety of people. Hopefully initiatives like this will inspire other companies to follow.

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