We live in an age in which France is lining up flying taxis to help people navigate the next Olympic games and several world governments have stated plans to land a human on Mars within the next decade or so. It’s no wonder, then, that with this level of technology at our fingertips, people have been applying it to dealing with human disabilities in some amazing ways. And while there is no end of progress being made every day, these are 10 of the most incredible ways technology is helping people overcome or deal with disabilities.
10. Blindness Overcome Through Taste
There are a number of reasons why a human might lose their sight. Some people are born blind, while others may lose sight to physical trauma or even diseases like diabetes. So how can a person devoid of sight process information from the world around them? Obviously, the other senses are greatly important here, but we have a history of sensory substitution, especially with the blind. Braille, for instance, is a method of reading without seeing. You substitute the sense of touch to achieve the same result in your brain. Electrotactile stimulation builds on that idea.
BrainPort technology seeks to use novel ways to send signals to the brain of a blind person that can then be interpreted much the same as they would be by a person with vision. A camera is used to focus on an object and electrodes attached to the camera are connected to the tongue. When the camera focuses on an object, electrical signals travel through the wires to the tongue and the brain is able to interpret those signals to indicate what the camera is “seeing.”
Why does the tech use your tongue? It’s packed full of nerve endings and, unlike your flesh outside of your body, there’s no layer of dead skin cells on it to muffle the signal. That means a lower voltage can transmit more information for your brain to process.
Users need to be trained to use the system, of course, but results are stunning. The electrical signals sent through the tongue are perceived with incredible clarity. Users can read letters of the alphabet and understand depth, shape, size, and perspective. One man was able to track down his wife in a forest using it. As amazing as it sounds, brain scans back it up. The people are seeing, as far as their brains are concerned.
9. Robot Suit
While bloggers and fiction writers are confident that one day robots are going to destroy us all, there’s still hope for the field of robotics in general. When it comes to help for those who have been paralyzed, either partially or fully, the potential of a robotic exoskeleton is incredibly promising.
Most of us became familiar with the rudimentary concept of a robot exoskeleton back in 1986 when the movie Aliens came out and we all cheered Sigourney Weaver on as she used one to fight the alien queen. But that science fiction design packed a lot of possibilities. Nothing quite as industrial, of course, but the concept is sound. What if a person could be strapped into a machine that would walk for them?
There have actually been many companies producing many designs based on this theme over the years. Some aid in walking, some aid in functions many of us take for granted, like lifting a drink or carrying heavy things.
The suits offer a plethora of functions for people with a wide array of physical setbacks. From those with spinal cord injuries who have lost the ability to walk, to those with degenerative muscle conditions that no longer have the strength to perform basic tasks. Some of the suits are still in development stage, but others are currently being used out in the world.
8. Enchroma Glasses
Those of us who can see color the way our eyes were designed to see it probably take this ability for granted. Color is a part of everyday life for most of us. But for those who are colorblind, it’s a source of frustration that they cannot see the world the way everyone else insists it looks. It may not be the most debilitating condition in the world, but it does leave people feeling a sense of loss. And it can cause problems when people take it for granted that you can distinguish all the colors when you cannot. This is where Enchroma glasses come in.
You can head to YouTube and check out all kinds of videos that show people trying these glasses on for the first time. It’s actually an incredibly emotional experience and quite heartwarming to watch the reaction of someone who has never truly seen color before put on a pair of glasses and suddenly see the world in a whole new way.
Most people who are colorblind are red/green colorblind. They have issues distinguishing between these colors because of a fault in how their eyes process light wavelengths. Enchroma glasses boost the eye’s ability to distinguish between colors by filtering certain wavelengths of light. This lets them see a clear difference between colors and, in particular, red and green, which had been causing problems for them previously.
Amazingly, the glasses were invented by accident by a doctor trying to make safety glasses for surgeons. He let a friend try them out during a game of Frisbee one day and the friend, who was colorblind, was blown away.
7. AI Hearing
Like vision, hearing is a sense that can be lost for many reasons, not to mention those who are born without it at all. Hearing aids in one form or another have existed for over 100 years and prior to that there were less technical devices being used to help amplify sound so the hard of hearing could pick up on the sounds around them.
The future of assisted hearing is opening doors most people likely never imagined possible even fifteen years ago. AI assisted hearing devices are able to filter sounds rather than just amplify them as they reach a wearer’s ear. It allows someone wearing it to focus on a thing they want to hear and remove the sounds they don’t want to hear. That means, in a crowded room, you could focus on what just one person was saying while not hearing the rest of it.
If that’s impressive, take a seat because that’s one part of many. The device is also essentially a Fitbit in your ear. It measures steps walked and cognitive functions for you as well. It can even translate 27 different languages, basically making it our real life version of the Star Trek universal translator. And this is just one of many similar devices either on the market or in development for the hard of hearing.
6. Dot Watch
With the advent of smart technology and, in particular, wearables, it was only a matter of time before products that could help those with disabilities would hit the market as well. The Dot Watch is arguably one of the smartest and most advanced around. Think of it like an Apple Watch, but designed entirely with users who are blind in mind.
The watch has a braille display, and it does far more than use tell time. The watch face has an incredibly small but versatile braille display. When paired up with a cellphone, if you get a text, it can be translated into braille on the watch so you can read it on the go. It lets you know who might be calling in a discreet way, rather than having your phone say it out loud (which you may not want when you’re out and about), and a lot more. It can store information, give you notifications, and even wake you up with a vibrating alarm. And, of course, it also tells time.
5. Stair Climbing Wheelchair
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed back in 1990, and since that time businesses have been required to make their premises accessible to people with a variety of disabilities and, in particular, those in wheelchairs. Wheelchair accessible features include automatic doors, and ramps instead of stairs. Prior to the passage of the law, hundreds of disability activists literally crawled up the stairs of the Capitol to prove a point about access.
Despite that law being over 30 years old now, stairs are still a bane for many people in wheelchairs. Fortunately, companies like Scewo are tackling this problem from the other end. If access can’t be part of the design for wheelchair users, then their wheelchair will adapt to the design to grant access. Thus was born the stair-climbing wheelchair.
Various versions of stair-climbing wheelchairs have existed for years now, but the most advanced versions like the Bro wheelchair. The chair functions much like an ATV across almost any terrain. Users can even control it with a smartphone if they want. It can rise up to a meter off the ground so the user can reach higher places, and it’s still fully mobile at that height. When a user approaches stairs, the track feature allows the chair to rise, secure itself on a step, and then continue the process up or down as needed.
4. OrCam MyEye
Not everyone with a visual impairment is blind, and that means a lot of people have varied needs when it comes to improving how they navigate the world. Developing technology that can assist everyone has been a major goal for researchers for years. If that means aiding a person who is fully blind, someone with severe limitations to their sight, and even those suffering from conditions like dyslexia, it could change the lives of millions. That’s what the OrCam MyEye seeks to do.
MyEye involves the use of a small camera, and microphone situated in a pair of glasses. These are connected to a small computer that you can keep in your pocket. Once it’s on, the user just needs to point at something. If there is text there, the MyEye will read only the text you’re pointing at, dictating what’s there through the earpiece. But it’s not limited to just reading the ingredients on your cereal box. It can also identify money and even the faces of people.
When presented with a person, the technology will identify, probably as best as it is able, whether it is seeing a male or a female and then say something like “there is a man in front of you” in your ear. If you know this person, you can tell the MyEye “this is my friend Simon” and from then on it will remember his face. The next time Simon approaches you, MyEye will say, “Simon is in front of you.”
In addition to faces, text, and money, the MyEye is able to identify a variety of objects to help you navigate through your world and track them down in your own home if need be.
3. Artificial Larynx
One disability that is often overlooked due to its relative rarity is the loss of the ability to speak. Losing one’s vision or hearing is something we’re far more familiar with, but it’s not unheard of for someone to suffer serious damage to their larynx and no longer have the ability to talk.
People with this condition have typically had a number of non-verbal methods of communication at their disposal. Writing is, of course, an obvious option, as is learning American Sign Language. But Syrinx is a recent technology that can give voice back to those who may have lost it as a result of physical trauma or something like cancer.
Syrinx is essentially a wearable voice box. You may have seen people in the past using something called an electrolarynx, a device that a user has to hold up and press into their throat if they wish to speak. The handheld device produces a robotic voice and has limitations. It can never be used if you’re doing anything that requires two hands, for instance. The design also never really evolved beyond its initial iteration, meaning that tinny, robotic voice was never improved upon.
Syrinx is wearable, which can free up hands for driving or typing. A wearer can even upload a sample of their voice from before they lost it to help the device mimic it. It vibrates the neck similar to the way the natural larynx would, producing a range of frequencies better able to copy normal-sounding speech and voice.
One of the things most everyone remembers about Stephen Hawking was how he communicated. Hawking suffered from ALS, which rendered him nearly completely paralyzed. He was able to control a computer interface to help him speak, which relied on subtle muscle movements in his cheek to control the computer, which would then verbalize his thoughts. The same idea behind that technology is advancing even today with an eye, or rather an ear, toward helping other patients with neurological conditions.
The Earswitch is a device that is implanted inside your ear. Rather than Hawking’s method, which uses the movements of cheek muscles, Earswitch relies on a very small muscle inside your ear to allow it to function.
Even people with severe muscle degeneration can still control something called the tympani muscle in the ear. A small camera attached to an earpiece scans the muscle for movement and interfaces with a computer, allowing users to scan through letters on a keyboard and “click” when they have what they want. This ensures that a patient who has lost almost all muscle control can still communicate with others.
1. Mind Controlled Prosthetics
Humans have been using prosthetics for generations. The earliest known prosthetic dates back to Egypt, around 950-710 BCE. It was a toe made of wood. In more modern times, prosthetics have made some advances to become more realistic looking, and even practical.
The most impressive of these prosthetics are the ones that rely on nerve signals in the tissue the prosthetic is attached to. They are able to interpret signals that the brain would be sending to the real limb and allow the prosthetic to act them out. Effectively, they are mind controlled devices that can turn nerve signals into movement like a real appendage would.
There have been prosthetics in the past that receive signals directly from the brains of the limbless to help control them. And there have even been ones that attach to the nerve endings in the severed limbs. But a team from the University of Michigan has developed a cutting edge technique that offers the recipients control at a level almost identical to having a living limb. They use muscle grafts to attach the prosthetic to the body. The grafts allow the nerves to bond to living tissue again. This means fine motor control is far greater than with previous methods, and also less invasive and dangerous compared to brain surgery.
Those who have used prosthetic hands designed this way can easily grasp spherical objects, move their thumbs in a full range rather than simply one position or another, and even play Rock, Paper, Scissors.