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7 ways no-touch, hands-free technology is transforming our everyday lives

An expert shares why the future is out of our hands.
Apr 10th 2017, 4:06 PM 14,704 9

WHETHER IT’S THE ABILITY to ask Siri to call your partner to pick up a forgotten ingredient when you’re busy cooking, or the reassuring but commanding tone of Google Maps telling you that you’ve come off track, hands-free technology is infiltrating our lives at a rapid rate.

For a lecturer at the School of Computing at Dublin City University, Dr Dónal Fitzpatrick, it’s about far more than convenience however. Dr Fitzpatrick, has over his career specialised in the development of non-visual access to mathematics and other complex data.

Blind from birth, Dr Fitzpatrick is passionate about how non-visual technology can enrich people’s lives, whether they are living with a disability or not. He’s also an avid skier in his spare time.

Here he shares seven ways that hands-free technology is set to shake up our lives.

1. It’s already in millions of homes, thanks to Siri

bruno-gomiero-94171 Source: Unsplash

Even though voice-powered computers existed for a number of years before Siri reached our iPhones (and there are alternatives like Google Voice), Apple’s release of Siri was a big turning point for the spread and acceptance of hands-free technology, according to Dr Fitzpatrick.

There were others before that but because of Apple’s marketing and brand management a huge number of people suddenly acquired this technology. It was very handy to be able to say send a message to whoever but you do still have to check the message before you send it. The ability to do that instead of typing can be very handy for those with a disability.

The real clincher in these types of technology? The ability to converse, rather than command, says Dr Fitzpatrick:

We need technology to be more conversational and have the ability to ask a number of questions like, “what is the weather in London like today?” And then to simply be able to ask, “And tomorrow?”. In a lot of systems it doesn’t work like this but it can’t be about issuing commands or specific phrasing, it must be unobtrusive.

2. Gesture-controlled gaming is about to get big

glenn-carstens-peters-204767 Source: Unsplash

Once voice control technology reaches a speed that responds quickly enough not to interrupt someone’s experience, it may become a common feature of gaming.

In the gaming environment it’s going to come down to speed and how quickly can you give the command to the character.

Certain types of games may have the potential for becoming completely hands-free, says Dr Fitzpatrick:

In games like online chess, there is a recognised code that would really lend itself to voice control. Gesture-based interfaces like virtual reality will definitely evolve in gaming.

3. The era of touch-screen may have an expiry date

shutterstock_315797645 Source: Shutterstock/Breadmaker

You may have noticed that the touch-screen technology we enjoy using on our phones has begun to appear in other areas of our lives, like within our kitchens and on our computers, which isn’t always a good thing, explains Dr Fitzpatrick.

One very important concern of his is the spread of touch-screen technology in this sphere, which can make tasks very difficult for those with vision or motor problems. However, he sees hands-free technology as a good solution to this:

Appliances need to become more controllable by users with disabilities. If the trend for touch-screen continues there are a lot of people throughout the world who won’t be able to cook or wash clothes. We need for some way to control these through voice interaction or phone applications.

4. It’s much easier to train people on hands-free technology

tiago-muraro-6395 Source: Unsplash

Have you ever had to explain at length how to record a programme to your parents, with fear of even mentioning the training involved in catching something on ‘The Player’?

It’s not an uncommon experience, and technology isn’t always designed to be as accessible as possible for its users, which is where hands-free or voice-powered technology can really make things a bit more straightforward:

There are accessibility issues for various people who have a disability but this goes into the mainstream too, such as older adults who grew up without technology. Maybe they want to just change the channel on a television or find out when the next match is without trying to navigate menus and remember buttons.

5. It’s transforming the lives of the disabled community

shutterstock_363148778 Source: Shutterstock/Africa Studio

According to Dr Fitzpatrick, the development of voice-powered technology, and its inclusion in mainstream consumer products have been huge for any users who struggle to see or operate devices:

It’s mainly stuff that’s happening in mainstream that’s relevant to the disabled community, things like Amazon Echo and Amazon Fire TV which are all powered by voice-controlled personal assistant technology, Alexa. These are very interesting for people who have disabilities. If you can’t operate a keyboard it really opens up a wealth of opportunities if you are able to issue a query with your voice to operate a device.

These types of technologies, which are being developed by a number of companies, allow a person to use their voice to control music playback, make to-do lists, set alarms, stream podcasts, play audiobooks, and seek weather, traffic and other real time information.

6. It’s part of the move for engineers into universal design

suhyeon-choi-195419 Source: Unsplash

Dr Fitzpatrick is a passionate advocate of universal design, that all products should be designed to be accessible by all users. An example of this is the type of voice-controlled software that a lot of technology companies have pioneered into the mainstream.

Voice-powered technology is a lot less cumbersome than traditional screen readers, which read different menu items but may have several layers of menus to navigate for a blind or physically disabled person, according to Dr Fitzpatrick.

For blind people specifically, it’s very useful to navigate without layers and layers of menus. A screen reader is used by blind people to access computers and phones as it speaks what appears on screen or what the user inputs, using synthetic speech. This means that the phone or computer is powered by voice output to convey what sighted users can see.

7. It’s about to make homes a whole lot smarter

gabriel-beaudry-93843 Source: Unsplash

The ability to walk into a room and command the lights may seem like something from a James Bond film, but it’s actually something that is already available, and again, it holds huge possibility for all users. “I think the big development is going to be controlling in-house systems”, predicts Dr Fitzpatrick.

A lot of devices can be equipped with voice control technology or linked into systems that can. Now I can walk into a house and ask Alexa, what lights are on? As a blind person if I can ask what lights are on that’s really useful. A lot of ovens and kitchen appliances are now operated by touch-screens, and if they could be controlled by your phone or a spoken interface that could be very interesting.

Last week, we covered other hands-free technology set to arrive in homes, such as lights and a kettle that you can control with your phone, along with a device that can turn any surface into a means to control switches, showing just some of the other ways hands-free technology is set to take over our homes.

Whether it’s as a means of ensuring that new technology is accessible for everyone, or just as an exciting addition to your favourite device or app, the future is definitely looking like it’s going to be hands-free.

Want to check out some hands-free control for yourself? The new Volkswagen Golf is available with gesture control, allowing you to change radio stations, songs and volume with the simple wave of a hand. Discover more intuitive features at Volkswagen.ie.

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