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How Tech for the Disabled Is Going Mainstream


Designs conceived for the handicapped, such as voice commands for PCs, often lead to products for the masses

Apple (AAPL) is widely celebrated for making devices as easy to use as they are elegantly designed. What customers probably don't know is that some of these features aren't exactly new—they evolved from software Apple created to help disabled people use PCs. Among them: the new iPhone's voice control option, which allows users to speak to their handsets to prompt an action, such as calling Mom, or to get a spoken answer to such questions as "What song is playing?"

And "mainstreaming" tools for the disabled is spreading. Software developer Nuance Communications (NUAN), for instance, invented voice command technology to help people who are unable to type on a computer. Today, the company's algorithms are used in products ranging from Amazon.com's (AMZN) latest Kindle e-reader to cars from Ford Motor (F). Meantime, Mattel (MAT) is incorporating technology, initially intended to help paraplegics, into a soon-to-be-released game controlled by players' brainwaves.

Other companies should consider following these trailblazers, say innovation consultants. "Companies could look at designing for accessibility as a sales opportunity. Most features that are accessible for the disabled have great value to everybody," says Donald A. Norman, a former Apple vice-president for advanced technology who heads a joint business and engineering program at Northwestern University.

Benefits for the Blind

Mainstreaming has a long history. Thomas Edison saw his invention of the phonograph as a way to open the printed world to the blind by recording book readings. More recently, predictive-text software, the algorithms that finish words people type in search engines or e-mail, had its roots in technology geared to the disabled, according to patents filed for related programs.

Apple's VoiceOver feature can be traced back to the late 1980s, says Norman, when the computer maker decided to try to embed "universal access" in its Macintosh PC line. The term is used in engineering and design circles to describe goods, from scissors to cell phones, made in such a way that people of any age or physical ability can use them. VoiceOver became a standard feature of Apple computers in 2006. When it's activated, the Mac reads everything highlighted by the cursor, from text on a Web page to numbers in a database, in a natural-sounding voice.

While VoiceOver helped broaden Apple's reach to the blind, it also became a mini-engine for innovation within the company. "When we created the VoiceOver idea and concept for the Mac, we also realized we could take advantage of it by mainstreaming it," says Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice-president for iPod and iPhone marketing.

Now the technology has made its way into the iPod Shuffle. Unlike its larger brethren, the Shuffle is too small to have a screen to display information about its music content. The latest model, introduced last March, gets around this shortcoming with software that can say what song is playing. Sales were 51% higher in the new Shuffle's first week than they were for the previous model's debut, says Barclays Capital (BCS) analyst Benjamin Reitzes. The low $79?price undoubtedly was part of the reason. But many users raved online about the voice interface, indicating that the feature helped popularize the music player, too.

Apple added a reverse version of Voice?Over to its third-generation iPhone, released in June, that enables users to tell the phone to perform functions rather than type commands. That permits hands-free use of the smartphone and makes the device functional for people with visual and other physical handicaps, as well as for motorists. "Some customers need assistive technologies, and other people want convenience," says Joswiak. "We try to solve problems for the disabled community, then we drive the solutions into the mainstream, to let everyone take advantage of them."

The rising demand for devices that can speak and be spoken to has been a boon for Nuance Communications. The Burlington (Mass.) company supplies voice control software for a growing number of products, from its Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software for PCs to hands-free voice dialing for phones from Nokia (NOK), Samsung, LG Electronics, and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (RIMM). Through a joint Ford-Microsoft (MSFT) venture called Sync, Nuance also provides voice command capabilities in top-selling GPS navigation devices, such as Garmin and TomTom, as well as in Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles.

"While the disabled aren't a significant percentage of our users today, they are our biggest power users," says Peter Mahoney, general manager of Nuance's Dragon unit. "They help us push the envelope" when it comes to improving products for mass-market customers.

Other companies are borrowing technology that aids the deaf. At Google (GOOG), a deaf software engineer, Ken Harrenstein, spearheaded the creation of a captioning tool for videos posted on Google's YouTube site. His original intention was to help deaf users. But the company soon figured out the software could also help translate languages. That idea led in late 2008 to an auto-translation tool that allows people to add captions in 50 languages instantly to YouTube videos they upload, increasing the number of people who can watch and understand the clips.

Mind Control

Mattel is taking mainstreaming into the toy market. In October it plans to release Mindflex, an $80?game that borrows from technology used by severely disabled people to control electronic devices by channeling brainwaves via sensors. Mattel has licensed the toy's brainwave-harvesting technology from a San Jose company called NeuroSky. To play, users put on a headband with sensors. By focusing their thoughts on motion, they can cause a motor to propel small plastic balls through a tabletop obstacle course. When they relax, the objects stop moving.

Mattel is betting that the technology will become the basis for a line of mind-controlled physical games like Mindflex, opening up a new category for the toy industry, says Geoff Walker, a senior marketing vice-president at the El Segundo (Calif.) company.

As pioneers boost sales by incorporating technology once confined to products for the handicapped, other companies are sure to follow. They could come out ahead, says Tim Bajarin, president of technology consultancy Creative Strategies in Campbell, Calif. "It's smart, because there is an aging population that will need easier-to-use tech. It's even smarter to follow Apple's lead—and then call these features out and get people's attention. Then it becomes a competitive advantage."


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