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Priorities for Technological Research for Visually Impaired People

John Gill



It can take a number of years from the specification of a research project to the outcome being of practical benefit to blind and partially sighted people.  Since there are finite resources, both of funds and skilled staff, for research it is important to carefully analyse the likely future unmet needs of the target user population before determining priorities for research.  This is not trivial since both the technology and the user needs will change with time.

At present much of the technological research is targeted at people using non-visual means of communication and who do not have additional impairments.  However the demographic trends are for an increasing proportion of visually impaired people to have a significant additional impairment.

Much of the current technological research relates to developing sophisticated devices for blind people of above average intelligence.  However there is an unmet need for many low cost devices; for instance, devices for opening new types of packaging of domestic products.

Technological developments, such as 3G mobile communications, offer exciting possibilities for new types of services which may be of particular benefit to blind and partially sighted people.  However new models are needed for transferring this technology from pilot schemes to being generally available at affordable prices.


Over the last thirty years, the visually impaired population in developed countries has changed.  There are fewer blind children, but a greater portion of these have an additional impairment.  More people are living to an older age, and those between 60 and 70 have far greater expectations of what technology could do to alleviate their problems, and commercial organisations have not perceived this group as a viable market for new technological products and services. 

There is a lack of consensus on research priorities – both in basic as well as applied research.  Basic research aims to further knowledge in a particular area (eg tactual perception) whereas applied research is related to a specific application (eg the design of embossed maps produced by a particular process).

Other related fields have approached the task of setting research priorities by a number of techniques.  One common approach has been to organise seminars to bring together various groups of stakeholders.  This may be accompanied by long-term costs and benefits analyses of the various research areas under discussion.

Inclusive design of mainstream products involves designing in accessibility from the outset.  Like quality, inclusive design has to become part of an organisation’s culture and not treated like a coat of paint which is added as the final stage before a product goes out the door.  However there is a shortage of appropriate guidelines based on sound scientific data, but this is an area which is perceived as uninteresting by the academic research community.

Although the concept of inclusive design has been around for many years, many industries are still unaware of what they could do to make their products easier to use by people with disabilities.  In some areas, the developments in product design appear to be making life harder for disabled people.  For instance packaging has become increasingly standardised so it is more difficult to differentiate products on the basis of the shape of the container.  At the same time products are becoming harder to open.  In the case of jars of jam, the problem is caused by the increased vacuum to give longer shelf life with fewer preservatives.  With other products it is the increasing use of tamper-proof packaging which is often transparent and requires good manual dexterity to open.  Also labels are required to contain more information which often means that a smaller print size is used.

However technological developments such as RFID (radio frequency identification) may alleviate some problems experienced by visually impaired people.  A RFID tag can contain considerably more information than the conventional barcode used by many supermarkets.  For instance it could contain the use-by date as well as the ingredients (often important for people with allergies).  For clothes it could contain the washing temperature such that the washing machine could automatically select the correct temperature.  For medicines the RFID tag could contain dosage information.  This will require the product suppliers to see a commercial advantage in including this information, and in the user having the appropriate equipment to interrogate the tag.

With high technology equipment an important aspect for visually impaired users is to have a consistent user interface.  Unfortunately existing conventions often make this difficult – for instance the different layout of the numeric keys on calculators and telephones.  Ideally the user should be able to adjust the user interface to suit their personal needs.  Many public telephones now include a volume control, and some permit the user to select their preferred language for the operating instructions.  However new technology permits other methods for personalising the user interface.  For instance a smart card can store the users preferred settings such as size of characters and icons as well as preferred colours for text and background.

Not all problems can be resoled by inclusive design alone.  Another possibility is to provide an interface to an assistive device.  The advent of wireless systems, such as WiFi, Bluetooth and ZigBee, creates a range of new possibilities.  For instance a mobile phone handset with Bluetooth could be used to receive speech output of the information on the display on an ATM (cash dispenser).

It is the convergence of computing, telecommunications and broadcasting that open up a range of new possibilities, but also potential problems.  The trend is towards computers to be embedded in products, with increasing bandwidth available for both fixed and mobile communications.  In the system there will be increasing use of intelligent agents to automatically handle a range of service options, some of which could be specifically for disabled users.

The increasing bandwidth available to domestic customers makes viable the downloading of talking books over the telephone line.  The same link could be used by deafblind persons to transmit video pictures to a service centre to obtain advice or help (with the output being in their preferred modality).

On digital television there is the possibility of providing clean audio (an audio channel without non-essential background music or noises), audio description (where a verbal description of the action is inserted in the gaps in the dialogue), and optional sign language output of programmes.  However these services tend to be available only in countries where legislation or mandatory regulation require that they are provided.

Interactive television can be used to deliver a range of services such as booking a minibus or remote adult education.  To simplify the filling in of forms, standard information such as name and address can be pre-stored either in the set-top box or on the user’s smart card.  Low vision users often find it difficult to interact with menus which require the user to move a highlight between various options; in this case, it is often advantageous to number the menu items so that the user can press the relevant button on the remote control at their own speed.

Smart housing systems can help older people live independently for longer.  It may involve reminding the user to take medication at the appropriate time.  It could also provide an audible message when the user turns the key in the outside of their front door; the message could be that the cooker has been left on or a downstairs window has been left open.  Although this appears relatively trivial application of smart housing, it could just make the difference to give an older person confidence to continue to live independently.  The main difference made by recent technological developments is in wireless systems which significantly reduce the cost of installing and reconfiguring smart housing services.

For people who require a greater level of care, technology can help in providing remote healthcare so saving the patient from visiting the doctor’s surgery for routine measurements such as blood pressure.  For people with dementia it may be desirable for a carer to monitor the individual’s location, but this raises many ethical and legal issues.

In the office, computer software can automatically convert colours in a diagram to ones which are discriminable by someone with colour blindness.  Office equipment, such as photocopiers, could incorporate speech recognition.  Using a remote service centre, a blind user could receive a verbal description of a visual presentation being given by a colleague.

With public transport, many disabled users would like a fully integrated transport information service  which could plan a complete journey using transport services which are appropriate for their disability.  Already pilot schemes exist which can tell you how long before the next bus reaches your bus stop, thus minimising the time spent at the bus stop in the rain.  In the event of service disruption, the disabled traveller needs information in an appropriate form about suitable alternative methods of reaching their destination.  Mobile phones equipped with cameras can also be used to send visual and location information to a service centre where an operator can then guide the user to their desired destination.  Such a service could be very useful to someone with a learning disability when there is a service disruption.  However some organisation would need to fund the cost of running the service centre.

For leisure activities, new technologies could increase the available information (eg the use of electronic tags to give audibly the names of shops at their doorways) as well as increase personal security (eg incorporating a biometric sensor in an electronic purse so that if it is stolen it will be of limited value to anybody else).  However the greatest change will probably be the possibility of giving the disabled community more spontaneity; the typical non-disabled teenager uses their mobile phone to reschedule their activities at short notice but this is often not possible for a disabled person.

Away from home, using a mobile link to translate from one language to another would be useful to everyone.  However it is probably the more mundane aspects of the new technologies which will have greater impact for people with disabilities in the short term.  For instance RFID tags could be embedded in exhibits in a museum, both indoor and outdoor, and be used to trigger audible messages in the user’s preferred language.

Farther in the future is software defined radio interfaces coupled with a web of fixed and ad hoc networks.  These will create exciting possibilities for new services for people with disabilities.

However the big question is “Will it happen?”  It will require disability groups to more actively lobby and provide systematic analysis and quantification of the needs.  The necessary research needs to be completed and appropriate standards agreed.  Equally important is that commercial organisations need to gain a better understanding of how to market to the disabled community.  If the service is not commercially profitable in the short-term, it may be necessary to introduce appropriate regulation and legislation.




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