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CES 2018: evolutionary, but not revolutionary, for digital access

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the world’s largest consumer technology exhibition and showcases the products likely to appear in our shops in the coming months. While CES 2017 was considered revolutionary due to the Alexa digital assistant popping up everywhere, this year is more of a continuation of last year’s trends but with improved capabilities. This includes some helpful improvements for people with disabilities and some innovative proof-of-concept products that are likely to lead to digital access improvements in the future.

Roll-up TV

The announcement that received the most attention was LG’s rollable 65” OLED TV. As noted in the video below, the prototype could be useful in a house with limited space whereby you could use it as a full-sized TV for watching movies or shrink it down to be used as a computer monitor.

While this model is only for demonstration purposes as critical features such as how to connect devices to it is still being worked out, this may prove to be significant in a few years’ time as the technology becomes more defined. From a vision impairment perspective there are significant benefits to making a TV screen instantly bigger to see text and images on the screen, then instantly put the screen back to a smaller size for other users. However, the implication I see as being particularly exciting about this is its portability. Imagine having a mobile phone that can fit in your pocket, but with the press of a button turn into a screen the size of a home TV. As a vision impaired person, I see this as a great step forward and I’m looking forward to seeing how this proof-of-concept evolves.

Digital assistants are now getting screens

At last year’s CES Amazon’s Alexa stole the show with the digital assistant being integrated into a variety of different devices. This year Google has struck back with its integration of its Digital Assistant now reaching 400 million different devices. While Alexa-based digital assistants such as the Amazon Echo have had tremendous success in the US, it’s Google that has been the winner this year due to its international push, beating out Amazon in markets such as Australia where the Amazon Echo has only just been released.

In terms of access potential, the convenience of using a digital assistant has been available for a few years now. If you have a mobility impairment, being able to simply speak to a Google Home or Amazon Echo to turn on a light switch or play music has been a significant step forward, and likewise for people with a vision impairment, home automation using a digital assistant makes it much easier to achieve things. In the video below, the Google booth at CES 2018 even demonstrated the ability to connect a device that cooks popcorn!

However, while the ability to provide hands-free and non-visual commands to achieve everyday tasks is a fantastic thing for people with vision and mobility impairments, the new trend in digital assistants which is likely to provide an improvement is the addition of screens. While it’s great to make popcorn, ,the video about the Google booth also highlights that several manufactures are providing displays for digital assistants to show information such as recipes while cooking. Although this feature is available in a limited form already using the Google Chromecast, the version of Alexa on Amazon’s Fire TV and some other Echo devices, the integration of a screen will have tremendous benefits for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired as they will be able to visually see the information provided by the digital assistant. This opens new possibilities such as the use of a Google Home-type device for an office reception desk whereby the results can be conveyed using both audio and visual feedback.

Other highlights

While there were many other products that are likely to have a profound impact on people with disabilities such as driverless cars and drones that deliver people to their destination rather than packages, their availability to the public is unlikely to be this year. However, there are a few minor improvements to existing products which will have a benefit to people with disabilities such as the domination of wireless charging for mobile phones and improvements to Virtual and Augmented Reality.

While wireless charging may not seem particularly exciting and not particularly new, its inclusion in the latest iPhone models has been flagged as a time for industry to include the feature in more affordable devices rather than just the high-end phones. The other good news is that the charging technology is standard across different devices meaning that charging mechanisms are likely to become more affordable. From a digital access perspective wireless charging can be very helpful, especially for a person with a mobility impairment as the phone can just be place don a table to charge rather than having to find and plug in a cable.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are also not exactly new concepts, but their move towards affordability and as a standalone experience not requiring a computer or phone to be attached is a notable trend from CES this year. Benefits in relation to digital access are particularly notable in terms of simulation of real-world environments for navigation and mobility, as a rehabilitation device and a good way for people without a disability to get a better understanding of a physical limitation. As these devices continue to be less cumbersome and more affordable, its significance will continue to grow.  

Overall this year’s CES is more about evolutionary benefits rather than revolutionary with improvements to digital assistants, wireless charging and virtual reality all likely to trickle into our homes during the course of the year. However, concepts such as the roll-up TV demonstrate that exciting things are on the horizon, and I’m still excited about the driverless car when the time comes that I can get one. Additional information on CES products can be found at the CNet CES 2018 news website.

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