The wearable tech transforming how we live with disabilities

Next gen hearing aids and really, really smart glasses are the future
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Whether it's a woman completing a half marathon in a robotic exoskeleton, Samsung's Blind Cap for Paralympic swimmers, low cost bionic hands or the tremor tracking watch for Parkinson's and ET sufferers, wearable tech innovations are already helping disabled people get by on a daily basis. Strike that. Wearables are helping disabled people do more than just get by.

Let's not forget: these are the people who most need tech on their bodies, assisting their bodies and in some cases becoming their bodies. This area is constantly developing with startups, charities and the medical world working together to make life easier for people battling with disabilities. Here are just a few examples that show real promise.

Hacking hearing aids

Hearables are having a bit of a moment thanks to Apple's new AirPods but much more interesting (and impactful) is the future of hearing aids. Oticon, a company that produces leading hearing disorder equipment, has just launched a smart hearing aid that helps users handle noisy environments and follow rapidly changing conversations with several speakers.

The technology inside Opn is aimed at letting individuals with hearing impairments hear better and remember more. Powered by a connected platform called Velox, it uses an 'open-sound' approach that handles multiple speech and noises sources - however complex the listening situation.

The wearable tech transforming how we live with disabilities

There are two dedicated communication systems packed in the device, something Oticon says is a world first. One consists of optimised binaural processing, and the other handles direct streamer-free connectivity. Combined, they are designed to ensure hassle-free communication that doesn't impact binaural capabilities or battery life.

That's not all, though. The device also sports a feature called BrainHearing, which aims to transform the brain's ability to understand sound. It reduces the cognitive load on the user so they are never overloaded.

Tests taken by the company have shown that Opn can increase speech understanding by 30%, with 20% less listening effort. Using an online platform, users can even add connected self functionalities to the device, like getting messages and doorbell alerts.

"Opn is the world's first internet connected hearing aid, creating a world of opportunities for connecting to smart devices and wearables," Ole Asboe Jørgensen, Oticon's VP of sales and marketing, tells us. "By designing recipes through the If This Then That (IFTTT) network, users can get really creative and add genuinely useful functionalities to their listening device.

"We've seen examples such as receiving a message from a smart doorbell, an alert from a baby monitor, or automating a message to a loved one when a hearing aid is turned on each morning, but really the possibilities are endless."

Smart sight

Just as tricky as compensating for and improving hearing loss is dealing with blindness and visual impairment. Israeli tech firm Orcam is a pioneer in this area. It's developed a pair of smartglasses (see main image) that can be programmed to recognise faces and tell the wearer who they're speaking to.

MyEye uses AI to convert visual information into spoken word. A small camera is attached to the frame of the glasses, while a tiny speaker is positioned towards the user's ear. The camera and speaker setup then connects to a pocket-sized processing unit.

When the wearable is in action, it can discreetly and automatically pick up text from any surface, including newspapers, books, menus, labels, street signs and computer screens. It also recognises things like medicine bottles or products in a supermarket, and - the really impressive one - people. MyEye picks up faces that have previously been stored on the device when they enter the wearer's field of vision.

"Machine learning and artificial intelligence in wearable devices is a real breakthrough in helping people with disabilities," says Eliav Rodman, Orcam's director of marketing who will be showcasing the device at this year's RNIB Techshare conference in Glasgow.

"This discreet, easy-to-use wearable assistive technology provides the user a new sense of independence and empowerment. The ability to tell the user who they are talking to, for instance, removes that sense of awkwardness at the start of a conversation.

"The exciting thing about the future for these devices, and what they can do for a wide spectrum of users, is that the technology already encompasses a high level of independence-giving functionality – with further advancements on the way."


The wearable tech transforming how we live with disabilities

Fibromyalgia is a long-term rheumatic condition that causes pain all over the body, especially in the muscles. It's one of the most common chronic disabilities, and according to Arthritis UK, more than one in 25 people suffer from it.

Usually patients with the condition are given painkillers and other medication to alleviate symptoms. Alpha-Stim, a device that's clipped onto an item of clothing, provides patients with microcurrent electrical therapy (MET or MENS) to relieve acute, chronic and post-traumatic pain while also treating anxiety and depression. This form of therapy has been in use since the 1960s though medical professionals still disagree over how capable MET and similar technologies are of stimulating the healing process.

The way Alpha-Stim works is to increase the production of ATP, the chemical that's used when the body is going through the stages of repair. The device produces two MET sequences a minute and these aim to initiate and sustain the chemical and electrical reactions that are involved during healing. Doctors have reported seeing a variety of benefits, such as the elimination of pain and reduction of stress.

Linda Horncastle, 50, suffered many agonising years with the debilitating pain of fibromyalgia and thought she was going to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

"I wear the ear-clips while at work or on the London Underground. It means I can actually go on the underground," she tells us. "When you're suffering with fibro, the area of the brain called the hypothalamus has gone wrong and all the messages coming from the senses are amplified. The underground becomes like sitting in the middle of a huge disco. The Alpha-Stim promotes the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digesting food, so the tension eases, plus it also helps with fibro fog."

If we are healthy and well and comfortable we often take technology for granted and forget how powerful it can be. Not only can it help us live and work smarter, but it's also doing truly amazing things for people who are struggling with disabilities.

As you can see, wearable technology has the potential to help people with hearing, sight and cognitive problems, even in its infancy. We'll no doubt see more use cases in the foreseeable future as the tech continues to get smarter, smaller, cheaper and more accessible.

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Nicholas is a freelance journalist and copywriter interested in technology, digital culture and business, and have experience in both online and print media.

He writes for The FT, Business Insider, Engadget, TechRadar, The Next Web, FT, The Independent, Trusted Reviews, Wareable, and more.

His work has also appeared in T3, Tom's Guide, Laptop Magazine, Android Central.

Nicholas is interested in how entrepreneurs and companies using technology to drive positive change in the world.

Nicholas was diagnosed with a form of autism as a teenager, and uses his writing to be a keen advocate of tech-for-good, and to raise awareness of mental health. 

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