Josh Christianson at the CES conferenceAs in previous years, CES 2020 showcased promising technologies for expanding employment success for people with disabilities in the workplace. This year, one exciting difference we noticed among many of the next-generation technologies on display was a greater focus on creating technology to optimize and personalize spaces for a wide range of users.

Although usability differs from accessibility (which addresses the specific needs of users with functional differences or limitations), the two often go hand in hand in improving the user experience for everyone, including people with disabilities.

Where did we see the most buzz around personalization? Wearables. Wearables include a large array of technologies worn on the body, such as smartwatches, smart glasses, headsets, smart headphones, and other Internet-enabled devices. Wearables offer numerous potential uses in the workplace, such as:

  • Digital lanyards/glasses to access secure areas
  • Smartwatches for real-time communication and monitoring business processes
  • Devices to protect employees from injury by sensing how they lift heavy objects
  • Apps that track health factors that affect mood and stress levels

Dr. Poppy Crum, Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories and Adjunct Professor at Stanford University, presented on how “hearables”–technologies that utilize sensors placed in the ear–can even act as optimized hearing aid. The device can use biological signals to determine whether users struggle to hear specific sounds and then amplify these sounds. She predicts that a new wave of hearables arriving within five years will capably recognize stress levels, both current and anticipatory, which could be revolutionary for many employees, including people with disabilities.

Equipped with this technology, employees could effectively tune out distracting background noise to improve concentration. They could also receive notifications when their stress levels reached a certain threshold. Some hearable technology is already on the market. For instance, Apple’s Live Listen, enables use of AirPods as hearing aids can improving hearing sounds—when the surrounding ambient environment is very loud. And Valencell, a US-based biometric technology company announced during CES their calibration-free blood pressure sensor system which “allows someone wearing an earbud to get accurate blood pressure readings throughout the day, for example while they are at their desk at work, listening to music, or watching television, all without the hassle of putting on a BP cuff.”

Audio augmented reality (AAR) is another audio-based technology that excited us during this year’s CES. AAR offers a multitude of potential real-world applications, including wayfinding potential. Wayfinding is a crucial skill for people who are blind or have low vision. Wayfinding strategies and tools help people navigate complex situations, like commuting to work, exploring conferences, and meeting partners at another office. At CES we heard from Tom Pey and Tim Murdoch of Waymap, a technology company that produces an indoor wayfinding and navigation solution for people with disabilities to use via smartphones. Waymap’s service provides audio instructions to help people with and without disabilities reach their destination, with an accuracy of about one foot. Interest in the wayfinding space will only continue to grow. Thus, we were excited to see that last June CTA unveiled a new standard for designing inclusive, audio-based indoor navigation systems.

Last year we also noted that dialogues about 5G mobile communications were a common theme at CES. This year we similarly learned about how 5G-related technology can empower wearable personalization. For example, Crum predits that hearables will soon provide virtual assistants and will eventually not require Internet connections—while retaining fast reaction times. Using 5G-powered technology, latency for hearables could potentially decrease from single-digit milliseconds to as little as tens of milliseconds.

Of course, people with disabilities will only benefit if these emerging technologies are accessible, which bolsters the excitement and importance of the CTA Accessibility Roundtable at CES for us. This year’s CTA Accessibility Roundtable nearly doubled in size from last year’s convention. Representatives from more than 70 companies and organizations joined this session to share their work on making their products more accessible. The energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. It’s clear that we’ll need a bigger room in 2020, and we’re looking forward to it.