Jan 12, 2024 - Technology

Assistive technology is AI's next billion-person market

Illustration of a wheelchair-user at the bottom of very tall stairs.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

AI is fueling a new generation of technologies to help people who live with disabilities.

Why it matters: The right technologies can be life-changing for people living with a disability and will be essential in supporting our aging population, as healthcare costs skyrocket.

Be smart: Assistive technology is any tool, device or software that helps a person or their carer overcome the challenges of a disability.

What's happening: The new class of tech emerging is built on the experiences and data of people living with disabilities — and the hope is that it's more affordable and scalable than existing services.

Zoom in: There's a boom in new services for the blind.

  • A Romanian startup, dotLumen, offers a headset it calls ".lumen glasses," designed to replace the need for a guide dog or white cane. The company hopes to begin selling it as a registered medical device in the U.S. and Europe later this year.
  • CEO Cornel Amariei tells Axios the headset uses a scaled-down version of the lidar computer vision technology that powers autonomous vehicles, offering "70% of the performance of a self-driving car."
  • The headset guides users via vibrations — they follow the vibrations to remain clear of obstacles and other hazards.
  • "We had a blind person running in the [CES] hall" while wearing it, Amariei says.
  • Lumen's global database improves as each user's movements train the system and the headset can work without an internet connection.

Two products already on the market take different approaches.

  • OrCam's MyEye device magnetically clips onto regular glasses and offers prompts to the wearer — it can recognize stored faces, describe what it's looking at and read text aloud.
  • Ara Strap uses both ultrasound and light-based lidar sensors to scan its environment. Users strap it to their chest and receive alerts about three levels of risk in their path — and they say they find it allows them to move faster than with alternative supports like white canes.

Big tech companies have been creating assistive technology for decades.

  • Among numerous other projects, Microsoft offers a Seeing AI app, which is a talking camera for the blind, while Google's Project Euphonia trains speech recognition algorithms in non-standard speech, helping people with speech difficulties express themselves and use voice-activated devices.

Smart garments are expanding the definition of assistive technology.

Yes, but: Even breakthrough products have limitations.

  • The dotLumen headset has a battery life of two hours — meaning it can fail in ways a guide dog wouldn't.
  • With each of their devices costing several thousand dollars at market value, device makers tell Axios government subsidies are critical to ensure the products can reach most people who could benefit from them.
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