With barely enough time to recover from the holidays, the 2018 conference season is now in full swing. One of the first opportunities to learn about the latest trends in our industry came this past month at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) annual conference, held January 31 through February 3 at the Caribe Royal Hotel and Convention Center in Orlando. I took some time to walk the floor of the exhibit hall, which included several interesting new finds and updates to existing technologies. From smart glasses to smartphones, perhaps there's a product here for you.

Disney Wants you to Touch the Fireworks

One of the most interesting technology demonstrations could be found before even entering the hall. Disney Research, a Zurich-based group which develops new and innovative technologies and experiences that may later be used at Disney's theme parks, was making a lot of noise with "Feeling Fireworks", a tactile and visual experience which aims to transform the graphic effects of a fireworks show to a form that can be felt. The display used a large, flexible latex screen and jets of water to create a rather interesting tactile sensation. The screen included a raised triangle near the bottom which symbolized the area where the fireworks would be launched, and a circular area where the resulting fireworks would explode. The specialized jets of water were programmed to move in various patterns, starting at the triangular launchpad and finishing up in the circle above. In essence, one could trace the movement of the fireworks as they moved across the screen. Different water nozzles were used in a variety of patterns to simulate various firework effects.

The "Feeling Fireworks" show was first presented at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology conference in October 2017. Disney performs research such as this to ultimately enhance the experience in their parks, and based on the feedback received at the ATIA conference, it's possible you may find a tactile firework show at a Disney park in the future.

APH's Nearby Explorer Goes Indoors

Several companies have been tackling the age-old challenge of providing navigational solutions for indoor spaces. The satellites which are used to guide the GPS system on your phone or in an automobile cannot generally penetrate walls, making it difficult or impossible to gain reliable directions indoors. The American Printing House for the Blind is one of the latest companies to take a stab at solving this conundrum with a recent update to their Nearby Explorer app. Using 39 beacons strategically placed around the ATIA convention center, the iPhone app was able to identify nearby landmarks such as meeting rooms, restrooms, and the ATM. One could either walk around the building while the app spoke nearby points of interest, or search for a specific location and then receive feedback as they walked closer to their destination. One of the next challenges for the app's developers will be to provide turn-by-turn directions to these destinations.

APH has already deployed the technology at several locations in their home state of Kentucky including Louisville International Airport. One advantage of the APH system over others is their use of an open-source system for indoor tracking, making it potentially more cost-effective for companies and organizations to install the technology.

If you have an iPhone, you can try out the feature now using the latest versions of the free Nearby Explorer online or the paid Nearby Explorer apps. Shelly Brisbin reviewed the app in the November, 2016 issue of AccessWorld. The indoor navigation features should also land in the Android version of the app in the coming months.

A Touchscreen Phone with a Numeric Keypad

The iPhone is unquestionably the most popular mobile device used by blind and visually impaired consumers. But there are many people who long for the days of traditional buttons, especially when attempting to navigate those pesky phone trees.

Irie-AT was demoing the Kapsys SmartVision2, an Android-based phone which attempts to combine the best of both worlds by including both a touchscreen and physical buttons. The device features a traditional touchscreen on the top of its face with a full numeric keypad, arrow keys, and other dedicated buttons such as Home and End Call below the screen. It includes a simplified interface which can be used for making calls, browsing contacts, or sending texts. Other features include a magnifier function that can enlarge up to 7X, a remote assistant mode for those needing help with their device, and full access to Android apps with Google Play.

The basic version of the phone costs $599 and works on GSM networks, which includes AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States. The SmartVision2 Premium includes a book reader, GPS, and optical character recognition apps and sells for $889.

Smart Glasses are Getting Smarter

One of the biggest trends at this year's ATIA conference was the proliferation of smart glasses. These devices can provide a magnified view of your surroundings for those with usable vision and audible information for anyone wearing one of these devices.

Perhaps the most well-known entry in this category is the MyEye from OrCam, a virtual reality headset which can enlarge text, discern faces of nearby people, identify barcodes, and read printed materials. Bill Holton reviewed the original MyEye in an AccessWorld article in 2017.

Now, OrCam has made improvements to the system with the MyEye 2.0. The bulky and wired control box has been replaced by a thumb-sized, wireless remote which attaches magnetically to the glasses. The camera is on the end of the remote, and still performs the same functions as its predecessor. In our limited tests, OrCam does well at simpler tasks such as reading print or identifying a nearby face. Recognizing bar codes remain a bit more difficult, a problem that is not unique to OrCam since the product needs to be positioned in such a way that the code is visible.

Portability also comes with the price, as the MyEye 2.0 retails for $4,500, $1,000 more than the original model. Both versions are available now from their website or a local dealer.

A more recent entry in the smart glasses arena came to us from a newer company called Cyber Timez. Cyber Eyez includes many of the same functions as other smart glasses, but uses mainstream hardware in the form of the Vuzix Smart Glasses. The glasses run Android 6.0 and include a variety of applications as a part of the Cyber Eyez suite including object recognition, Skype video calling, and text recognition. The company touts that the glasses can recognize 16 billion objects, read text in 100 languages without an Internet connection, and identify a wide range of bar codes, though again we had difficulties with this last task.

Cyber Eyez, which includes the glasses and the custom software, retails for $2,295. Given the retail price of the glasses alone, we are happy to see a reasonable price for the provided software on the device.

Other companies are also delving into this market, including the $2,500 IrisVision which promise wireless connectivity and a 70-degree field of view, and the NuEyes Pro which feature voice-activated commands and a 10-hour battery life.

After trying various forms of glasses around the exhibit hall, my major takeaway is that these devices have a lot of potential and are currently best-suited for people with some usable vision. The audio cues that a totally blind person might need to line up a bar code or position a document for text recognition were lacking from all of the units we tested. That being said, these are limitations that could be overcome with the right software, and I would expect this category to make big gains in the coming months and years.

NBP Goes Metric

The conference brought some good news for users of tactile devices as well. In the summer of 2016, the National Braille Press, in conjunction with Squirrel Devices, released the Tactile Caliper, a simple device which can be used to measure objects with precision down to 1/16 of an inch. The measurements are displayed in braille as the mechanical portion of the caliper moves from one end of the device to the other. Put simply, it's a $18 work of art and an indispensable tool for the classroom or the home. Now, a metric version of the caliper is being released with similar specifications. It will measure to the nearest millimeter and sell for about $20. Look for it soon on the National Braille Press website.

Braille Moves

Astute observers of access technology likely noticed the appearance of Handy Tech braille displays in a new location, as the line of German displays including the 16-cell Actilino is now being distributed by Hims in the United States. A Hims representative assured me that their homegrown displays including the Smart Beetle and Braille Edge aren't going away any time soon. The website for Triumph Technology, the former dealers for Handy Tech displays in the United States, now forward to the Hims website and Triumph's Earle Harrison has come along for the ride as well.


As is customary, ATIA provided an early glimpse into the access technology trends of 2018. ATIA seems to have regained its footing as a strong access technology conference, with a major emphasis on education and sessions for teachers and rehabilitation professionals. The exhibit hall was lively and busy throughout the time I was in attendance.

Many companies will save their big news for the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference which will be held in San Diego in mid-March. We Expect more progress for Indoor navigation, smart wearables, braille access, and a variety of new gadgets all vying for our attention over the coming months. Be sure to check back with AccessWorld as we cover 2018's biggest technology stories.

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J.J. Meddaugh
Article Topic
Conference Coverage