How smart wearable tech design is helping people with disabilities

Accessibility from the big names and innovative startups
Designing for disabilities

As wearable tech moves from luxury to the mainstream, the industry is working to keep up with the needs of people who live with disabilities. While other categories in tech have worked to bridge this gap before, the modern wearable's direct connection to the user offers a unique opportunity to narrow the divide between person and technology.

From cutting edge innovations like CuteCircuit's Sound Shirt that allows deaf people to "feel" their music, to more simple, yet effective solutions like the new braille smartwatch from Dot, the industry is steadily evolving with the needs of disabled people.

But what about the titans in the wearable world? What are Apple, Google, Fitbit and other major names doing to make connected devices more accessible to all people? When it comes to sifting through all that juicy fitness data, users with visual, hearing or other disabilities can usually rely on the smartphone to assist, but we thought it would be worth a dive into what the big wearables themselves have to offer in terms of accessible user interfaces – and where they still need to go.

Using mainstream wearables

Apple Watch

Not only is Apple among the most accessible brands in the wearable industry, the company also makes its information openly known on pages for those with vision, hearing, and physical impairments. For Apple Watch users who are blind or visually impaired, Apple's VoiceOver is a handy feature that makes it easier to navigate the OS. The gesture-based screen reader tells the user about what's on the display when an item is tapped, and offers instructions on how to navigate without vision.

The Taptic Engine is Apple's haptic feedback system that taps its user's wrist to alert of any notification, message, or reminder that comes to the user's phone.

Thanks to this users can discreetly get the current time through a series of "taps" for each number by double-tapping the display for hours and minutes, or triple-tapping for just the minutes. For those with limited vision, the Apple Watch offers a zoom feature, font size adjustment and an oversized watch face, as well as options to reduce the background transparency of notifications and the animations of the UI, so it's easier to read and select things. And the grayscale mode, which we've also recommended as a battery life saver, will help people with visual impairments like colour blindness.

The Taptic Engine is also a means of accessibility for people who suffer from deafness or hearing impairment. For partially deaf users, or those deaf in one ear, the Apple Watch supports mono Bluetooth audio that forgoes the stereo split and sends an equal signal to each ear, meaning that nothing is lost in the stereo spread.

Finally, for those who are physically impaired but still wish to log their daily exercise, Apple has integrated a wheelchair-friendly mode in both the activity app and the workout app. For example, in the Activity app, the "stand" goal is now the "roll" goal, and in the Workout app, there is now both the outdoor wheelchair walk pace and run pace.


Android Wear

All in all, the Apple Watch has a lot to help people with disabilities, but what of its main rival Android Wear? Google's wearable OS brings many of Android's own accessibility features over to the smartwatch, including the ability to magnify bits of the screen with a triple tap. And with Android Wear 2.0 Google's smartwatches now offer their own readout feature for the visually impaired called TalkBack, though for now this remains in its "experimental" phase.

When active, tapping an item on the screen will highlight it as Google's voice announces what it is and other information that might be helpful to know (how many more items are in the list, for example). As it's experimental, we weren't surprised to find it has some problems right now, particularly in getting the double tap to register. It also made interacting with the Huawei Watch 2 more sluggish, which could be quite frustrating. The readout assistant is more customisable than Apple's version though, letting you change how much information it announces and how it sounds.

Also helpful for people who suffer from impaired vision are the gestures. Android Wear lets you choose special finger patterns to perform tasks. For example, you can have it so swiping down and then left will open the Launcher, or swiping left then right to scroll – again, it's customisable. It's also something the Apple Watch doesn't offer.

Android Wear's accessibility has improved, but we'd like to see it get TalkBack to the point it runs smoothly. But perhaps Google's biggest edge in accessibility is actually the Google Assistant, which as of Android Wear 2.0 now lives on the smartwatch. With just a hold of a button you can ask Google to send a message or add something to a list, and over time this will get better. As we recently discovered Google plans to fully roll out Actions to Android Wear, which will let it co-operate with third party apps. Your move, Siri.

How smart wearable design is helping people with disabilities

Samsung Gear

We think Samsung's doing one of the best jobs in wearable accessibility right now, with an offering that feels on par with the Apple Watch, if a little better. On the Gear S3 you have a screen reader function which currently works more smoothly than Android Wear's, although sadly once you've gone beyond the initial menu the bezel cannot be used to navigate; instead you must use two fingers to scroll up and down. Shame.

Like the Apple Watch, the Gear S3 has a grayscale mode too, and also has an inverted colour option for higher visibility. For hearing, the S3 can either turn off all sounds, or switch all audio to mono.

Fitbit

What's perhaps most surprising is of the various players, Fitbit is the one which falls down a bit. With its basic trackers like the Flex and Alta HR there's either no screen or a screen with a high contrast to look at, which is good for people with poor vision, but the more feature-laden Fitbit Blaze lacks any notable accessibility options, despite its large screen.

The future of accessibility

How smart wearable design is helping people with disabilities

While companies are making good strides forward and taking advantage of what wearables bring, there's still a long ways to go in ensuring that the modern wearable is accessible, and better yet, intuitive to every consumer.

The future of accessibility in wearable technology is less likely to come from the top-down and much more likely to come from those who actually have some disability and develop a way to overcome their specific obstacles.

A small startup named Hz Innovations, which was founded by a deaf man named Greyson Watkins, has pioneered a new technology for other deaf people called Wavio. What makes Wavio special is that it's essentially engineered to function as a human ear for a deaf person's home. It can record and relay certain sounds to your smartphone or smartwatch as a notification or alert. Think: the security alarm, doorbell, microwave, smoke detector, and even the sound of thunder.

"Wavio is a gamechanger in the accessible technology space, and the company strives to serve 360 million people with hearing loss worldwide," Watkins told us, explaining that the devices with Wavio "work independently to send notifications of detected sounds to the user's personal devices through a downloadable mobile app."

How smart wearable design is helping people with disabilities

The product was designed to give deaf people the peace of mind to be completely independent without having to worry about missing the world around them, or feeling at risk without warning. This is an obvious obstacle for anyone living with deafness, but for the average smartwatch designer, it may not necessarily be at the forefront of their thinking in development.

Another upcoming wearable, Dot, is a smartwatch that communicates all of its information to the wearer using dynamic braille, whether it's receiving a message or just telling the time. Having just finished its beta testing, the watch should be arriving this year. "I want more change and what we are doing here is just the first baby step," chief design officer Mason Joo recently told us. "Maybe it puts some pressure on the major tech companies and manufacturers out there, maybe it brings more attention not to us but to the people we are trying to help."

These are just two examples of how those who live with disabilities are likely to be the ones to pioneer a better solution than the larger firms. As a whole, the tech industry is focusing more on the millions of people afflicted with a disability than it did in the past, but there's an abundance of room left to grow.

Wearable tech has the potential to redefine how disabilities affect people, and we're already seeing good ideas emerge. The simplest fix for the larger tech firms going forward would be to pay closer attention to the small startups and the accessibility technology they're innovating, especially from those who've dealt with the problems first hand – it tends to be the most cutting edge. For accessibility to continue improving, people with disabilities must hold wearable tech developers accountable for accessibility, while the large tech companies should be on the lookout for even the smallest innovation that could improve the lives of people who live with these challenges every day.

Do you live with a disability? Which wearables are accessible to you and what features do you want to see? Let us know in the comments.




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