Private Enterprise, Moore’s Law & Accessibility Innovation Are Empowering the Disabled

by on November 29, 2009 · 2 comments

The disabled have much to give thanks for this year—but contrary to common assumptions, it’s not for paternalistic government accessibility mandates, regulations or subsidies (see, for example, the FCC’s November 6 Broadband Accessibility workshop), but for the good ol’ fashioned private sector ingenuity that has made America great. Five broad categories of examples suggest how constantly-improving computing power and innovation can make life easier for many, if not all, disabled users—and how market forces empower the disabled along with everyone else.

Video transcription. Last week, Google announced “the preliminary roll-out of automatic captioning in YouTube, an innovation that takes advantage of our speech recognition technology to turn the spoken word into text captions.” Google uses the same speech recognition technology it refined with its free Goog-411 and Google Voice services to automatically transcribe video dialog (which can also be automatically translated using Google’s translation engine). Why? Not because of any government mandate, but because of some combination of three factors: (i) it’s an easy way for Google to invest in its “reputational capital,” (ii) the underlying technologies of transcribing videos make videos easier to use for all users, not just the hearing-impaired, and (iii) those technologies also make it possible to contextually target advertising to the verbal content of videos.

It’s worth noting that Hulu currently offers closed captioning for some of its television programming but notes that “closed-captioning data that’s used for broadcast TV isn’t easily translated for online use.” The online television clearinghouse promises to offer more closed-captioning soon. Perhaps they ought to license Google’s algorithmic transcription?

Voice recognition for direct consumer use—most notably, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10, the latest version of the leading voice recognition software, which was released in summer 2008 but only recently seems to have really hit critical mass. By many accounts, and my own personal experience over the last few months (having lost the use of my left hand due to cartilege damage), Dragon 10 is the first speech recognition program that is really “ready for prime time”—good enough that I will very likely continue using it, at least sometimes, even after my wrist heals in the coming months. (I used it to write this post.) It offers non-disabled consumers functionality like dictation-on-the go and points to a day when everyone gets their own personal transcription secretary—think: 1950s office culture meets artificial intelligence.

While Dragon standard currently retails for $50.99 on Amazon (list Price: $99.99), Microsoft’s new Windows 7 includes voice-recognition functionality that is not terribly far behind Dragon in quality among its built-in accessibility features (although, when it comes to voice-recognition, small differences in quality are well worth the cost).

Jon Morrow (Associate Editor of Copyblogger), whose muscular dystrophy rendered him quadriplegic, provides a definitive guide to speech recognition for bloggers, focusing on Dragon:

Voice recognition for search. Google Voice Search, initially launched on the iPhone a year ago, and more recently made available on other mobile devices. By allowing users to search from their phones without typing, the program makes search just that much more accessible for users who have difficulty typing—something I was very grateful for as I recovered from my wrist surgery, with only my Droid to keep me (and my one good hand) company—and allow me to blog! While this is a small step, it foreshadows a day in which all mobile devices will have the kind of speech recognition capability Dragon makes possible on the desktop today.  Given the rapid and constant increase in computing power made possible by Moore’s Law, it’s just a matter of time before this dream comes true.

What these first three product categories have in common, besides speech-to-text functionality, is that they are not exclusively geared to the disabled. Instead, each also offers functionality to a broader market.

Text-to-speech functionality. This is one of the accessibility highlights of Windows 7. Adobe has also improved the screen reader functionality in its Acrobat Reader 9 software. While these features are primarily geared towards the disabled, the quality of text-to-speech automation has improved to the point that it is actually being used for a mass-market.

  • Exhibit A: AudioDizer, a service that aims to “enable newspapers, magazines, and blogs to distribute their content in MP3 format for every single article published.” While AudioDizer won’t replace good human readers anytime soon, such software will increasingly remove the absolute necessity—and cost—of having someone read text material you want to podcast. This, in turn, will revolutionize podcasting by making it nearly costless and effortless to put text into audio form.  The quality is probably not acceptable for most people yet, but for many other hard-core “listenists” (people who consume audio content as voraciously as the most dedicated readers), it’s simply revolutionary to have access to a library of audio content potentially as large as the text-Internet itself.  For me, this means I can make better use of the time I spend puttering around the house—or, in my two-arm days, folding laundry, going to the gym  or riding my bike. (I am a particularly big fan of the MIT Technology Review podcast, which will give you an idea of the quality of AudioDizer.) But for the visually impaired, AudioDizer could be far more profoundly important.  In either case, the “killer app” for text-to-speech will be the level of quality finally achieved in speech-to-text by Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10.
  • Exhibit B: the text-to-speech capability in Amazon’s Kindle 2 reader device. While the Kindle itself is difficult for the visually impaired or blind to use, the mainstreaming of such functionality will ultimately benefit such disabled users by increasing the incentive to improve text-to-speech functionality. Sadly, after receiving (debatable) copyright complaints from the Author’s Guild, Amazon decided to turn this functionality off  for all books, unless activated by the publisher (an opt-in). If the technology were actually good enough to be a substitute for an audiobook, the Authors Guild’s complaint would be more understandable. Unfortunately, such an opt-in will probably delay the popular acceptance of text-to-speech functionality by average users.

Open source & open platforms.  Their growing success in the marketplace (not because of government, mind you!) likely means that disabled consumers will have more choices.

  • Software: There are a slew of accessibility-oriented add-ons for the Firefox browser, and Mozilla makes it easy to find such tools by allowing users to group related add-ons into “Collections” such as this one. In particular, the Firefox Accessibility Extension has been downloaded nearly 150,000 times.
  • Hardware: The success of open operating systems such as Google’s Android should make it easier for device manufacturers to build devices with specialty features, say, for the visually-impaired. Certainly, it would be easier to do so than to build such functionality into all iPhones. At the very least, a diversity of form factors will create more real options for the sometimes very specific needs of the disabled.  For example, I simply could not have typed effectively with one hand on my old HTC XV6800, but my new Motorola Droid, with its superior on-screen keyboard and different form factor allows me to type fairly effectively with just one hand (as does my partners iPhone).

Tying It All Together

That’s really the key lesson here: While many advocates for the disabled may complain that the iPhone isn’t as accessible as they might like, mandating accessibility features for all devices comes at a real costs for users: There’s only so much you can fit into a single device. If government mandates additional features, something has to give, because we live in a world of trade-offs: price, bulk, weight, etc. But a world with many devices and competing operating systems is a world in which niche markets are increasingly being served—primarily because Moore’s Law increasingly makes it cost-effective to do so.

The “disabled” are not a monolith but represent a wide spectrum of interface needs along the long tail of human ability-diversity. Rather than trying to stunt the functionality of all devices in the name of “fairness,” we ought to be focusing on the ways in which falling prices, increasing processing power and the increasing efficiency of small-scale consumer electronic device manufacturing make possible an increased degree, and diversity, of functionality previously inconceivable. We also ought to look for ways to make sure that government doesn’t inadvertently get away this ongoing process, such as through cumbersome device testing requirements or by restricting the exclusive handset arrangements that make it possible for wireless carriers to subsidize the cost of expensive devices. The latter is especially important for achieving the kind of scale in adoption of a device that could help make it worthwhile to develop and bring to market specialty devices—say, for the visually-impaired.

The offerings for the disabled will probably always lag behind those for average consumers, but complaining about that is a lot like complaining about the fact that the rich tend to be the only ones who can initially afford new inventions—from air travel to air conditioning to refrigerators to personal computing.  Just as the wealthy tends to fund the investments in these technologies, to the benefit of “average” consumers, so, too, will the mass market for functionalities like speech-to-text and text-to-speech drive the perfection of these technologies, which are particularly important for disabled users.

Of course, there are are indeed some accessibility functionalities necessitated by certain disabilities that may not have such ready dual-use among a mass audience. But I suspect that accessibility functionalities will become increasingly indistinguishable from tools developed for average users.  The main distinction will lie in the fact that for the disabled, these tools may be a life-changing “necessity,” while for most users, they may merely be “cool” or simply “useful.”  Case in point: the volume level on my new Droid’s speakerphone is so loud that it will likely make the phone “accessible” for many heart-of-hearing users who simply couldn’t hear previous smartphones. For me, it’s a nifty feature (and sometimes even annoyance), while for them it may be a fantastic relief.

More generally, it’s important to recognize the diversity of incentives that makes possible this diversity of functionalities for a diversely-capable citizenry: For some companies, like Nuance (maker of Dragon NaturallySpeaking) the disabled are a key market. And anticapitalist critic might claim that “they’re just in it for the money.”  But as Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words, it’s a good thing that there are companies out there who try to meet the needs of the disabled. (The Internet has made it easier than ever before for disabled consumers to find products that meet their needs.  Just Google the keywords “disabled products” and you’ll get over 57 million hits.) For some companies, the motive to  invest in accessibility innovation may be “philanthropic”—i.e., a down payment on consumer goodwill. And for other companies, the motive may be more mixed: Google clearly gains additional advertising audience by reaching the disabled, and also uses its accessibility technologies to serve ads better and making it easier for all users to conduct searches.

As for the broader subject of “neuro-diversity” (the broad spectrum of human cognitive abilities and not necessarily a “disability”), I highly recommend Tyler Cohen’s new book Create Your Own Economy (reviewed by Adam here), which celebrates the Internet as a great emancipating force for the neuro-diverse.

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