Data published by the World Health Organization in 2017 estimates there are 36 million people who are blind, plus another 217 million living with some form of moderate to severe visual impairment. In common with many others in the tech industry, Apple has continued to support individuals who have visual and/or sensory impairments. For instance, Apple’s standard OS and iOS software incorporates advanced accessibility features which empower those wishing to use Apple products and devices. But now a recent Apple patent filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has the potential to further enhance the lives of the blind and the deaf by utilising smart wearable technology.
Smart clothing to combat sensory impairment
According to “Guidance device for the sensory impaired”, an Apple patent application originally filed in 2015 but only recently published, the company have been exploring a system which utilises an “input/output touch surface”. Such wearable hardware would be fitted with sensors equipped to capture data relating to the local environment. This information would be collated to produce a model capable of informing and warning the user about the presence of threats or relevant issues the user would then be able to consider. Environments in which this assistive technology might operate could include city streets where the system could sense vehicles, traffic light signals and other street obstacles the sensory impaired have to navigate. And likewise, this equipment would be equally useful indoors for identifying objects nearby, or for navigating around furniture when crossing a room.
How does the technology function?
Offering some further details about the concept, Apple’s documentation reveals: “The device may detect information about the environment, model the environment based on the information, and present guidance output based on the model in a fashion detectable by the user,” noting also that this data could be tactile in nature, thus permitting the user to “quickly and efficiently feel” their local environment as they move around. This feedback may be experienced via a touch-based surface, for example, and the system would probably also include audio communication to help the user when surrounded by moving people and everyday objects.
Created by Chananiel Weinraub, an Israeli inventor, the Advanced Navigation Guidance system aims to provide a sensory-impaired wearer with support which improves upon the function of traditional devices such as white sticks, guide dogs, and even a human assistant. It seems the guidance device might be a sensor-equipped jacket or shirt – no doubt including a camera – which could be wired or wirelessly hooked up to an Apple Watch, iPhone or iPad acting as the input/output sensory assistance device. Such a jacket would considerably improve the quality of life for the sensory impaired. This device is much in keeping with technological advancements in the last 20 years and has even allowed those with visual impairments to play specially adapted casino games.
Apple’s patent application suggests its Research and Development teams are working on alternative applications for their emerging technologies. Smartphone sales are stalling with users reluctant to upgrade, so with users increasingly adopting voice assistants like Siri or the Amazon Echo for their personal computing requirements, Apple and other tech companies are looking to broaden the market.
Farhad Manjoo, a technology reporter for the New York Times, believes Apple and others are contemplating a digital future less dominated by screens. Discussing what he has dubbed “Peak Screen”, Manjoo said: “… tech giants are building the beginning of something new: a less insistently visual tech world, a digital landscape that relies on voice assistants, headphones, watches and other wearables to take some pressure off our eyes. Apple has never been scared of disrupting its own best inventions. By rethinking screens, it may have a chance to do that once more.”
Apple’s patent for those with sensory impairments demonstrates ideas which could potentially be applied to a range of technologies yet to be formulated.