May 212023

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of generative AI and how it might eventually improve the lives of people with disabilities, including my own. In the short term, it has the potential to become a more versatile form of assistive technology that is much more adept at anticipating its user’s needs. Even as I’m writing this post, my Edge browser is offering word suggestions that are on-point more often than not. And Google’s new GameFace software uses machine learning to allow users to control a mouse and play games with facial gestures. I haven’t tried it yet, but here’s a video profiling Lance, a gamer with muscular dystrophy who served as an inspiration for the development of GameFace:

But what else could AI do for people with disabilities as it becomes smarter and more sophisticated? Could it live on a phone belonging to someone with a cognitive disability and guide them through everyday tasks like grocery shopping or using public transportation? Could it act as a portable sign language interpreter for someone who is deaf? When I saw the movie Her years ago, I became enamored with the idea of a digital assistant companion who would be indistinguishable from an actual human. I’m still skeptical that such technology will exist in my lifetime, but I’m a little less certain than I was a few months ago.

I may be naive about the promise of AI considering that so many people who are much smarter than me are warning that it could lead to humanity’s demise. And I need to acknowledge my own biases about technology and its potential to make life better; biases that are nevertheless informed by my lived experience. Had I been born even fifty years earlier, my life would have been shorter and harsher. Technology, in all its forms, has made so much possible for those of us with disabilities and that fact gives me hope that this new, barely comprehensible tech can be wielded not as an instrument of destruction, but rather as a tool for shaping a more equitable and accessible world.

May 172018

For decades, people with disabilities who wanted to play video games (especially on consoles) had to improvise their own accessibility solutions. Perhaps a relative could help you modify a controller or maybe you could find a custom-built device on the Internet that would meet your needs. But these solutions tended to be expensive, finicky, and completely lacking in technical support. Console manufacturers simply didn’t recognize that they had customers with disabilities who wanted to play their games. That may be changing, though. This fall, Microsoft will release the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the first Xbox accessory that is specifically targeted at gamers with mobility impairments. The base unit (which will sell for $100) includes oversized buttons as well as 19 (!) ports for adaptive switches of various types. Here’s a video providing a closer look at the XAC:

While I don’t play on consoles (I’m a PC gamer from way back), it’s so exciting to see a major corporation recognize that people with disabilities can enjoy gaming if they are provided with flexible hardware and software. I hope that other companies take note and make a concerted effort to be more inclusive of gamers with all types of disabilities. Over the years, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of games include options to improve accessibility in the software, but accessible hardware has always been difficult to find. The XAC could represent a genuine shift in how corporations perceive both their relationship with and responsibility to customers with disabilities. A decade ago, a mass-marketed and relatively affordable accessibility device would be unthinkable. A decade from now, I hope devices like the XAC are commonplace.

Aug 102015

So after writing not long ago that I would hold off on upgrading to Windows 10, I did exactly that yesterday. Based on my reading, it seemed that most upgrades were proceeding smoothly and I decided that the risks were minimal. My own upgrade took less than an hour and was entirely uneventful. All of my installed programs were still there after the upgrade and everything is working normally, including my assistive tech. Kudos to Microsoft for finally implementing a seamless OS upgrade process.

As for my impressions of Windows 10, it’s essentially a re-skinned Windows 7. The live tiles on the Start menu are interesting for the first five minutes, but the overall design feels a bit disjointed. I still can’t figure out the difference between “Settings” and “Control Panel”. Windows 10 also forces white title bars on everything, which makes my desktop feel like the digital equivalent of working in a NASA clean room. I will definitely be signing the “Hey Microsoft, Your White Title Bars Suck!” petition.

If you’re considering whether to upgrade, I recommend doing so. It’s a vast improvement over the travesty that was Windows 8 and Windows 7 is getting a bit long in the tooth, so it seems likely we’ll all be using 10 before long. And because I can’t imagine Microsoft releasing anything with the awkward moniker of Windows 11, I expect Windows 10 will around for a long time.

Jul 292015

Since I’m on vacation this week, I thought it might be a good time to experiment with the new Windows 10 upgrade. But while early reviews are generally positive, they also indicate that it might be better to hold off on upgrading until the OS is less buggy. Windows 7 still serves me perfectly well, so I’m happy to wait for a more polished release. OS upgrades always make me a little nervous because I’m never certain if my assistive technology will be compatible. Specifically, the developer of my on-screen keyboard dropped support for the software several years ago, so I can’t rely on them for future fixes.

Whenever I do upgrade, I’ll post some brief thoughts here.

May 132015

Soylent is a “food replacement product” that has been getting some recent buzz. It’s a powdered drink that is supposed to provide total nutrition without all the hassle of grocery shopping or, you know, chewing. It seems to be targeted at millennials who are too busy coding or designing the next Uber to grab a bite to eat. Here’s a video of some Vox staffers giving Soylent a try:

I have one thing to say to the creators of Soylent: pfffft. I’ve been living on a liquid diet since long before your cute little startup came along. It’s called Osmolite and you can buy a case of it on Amazon for 36 bucks. It doesn’t even require mixing. I haven’t done a taste comparison, but I’m betting that Soylent and Osmolite share the same bland flavor. I can’t personally comment on Osmolite’s taste since it goes directly into my stomach. But I do find it quite convenient to eat while I’m asleep. In fact, I think I’ll have some right now.

Feb 042015

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler formally announced strong net neutrality regulations that would allow the FCC to regulate broadband providers as a public utilities. This move was widely expected, but it still reflects a major shift in the politics of net neutrality. A year ago, it was almost inconceivable that the FCC chairman, a former telecom lobbyist, would propose such a sweeping reclassification of broadband services. Net neutrality advocates did a masterful job of mobilizing public opinion to such an extent that the FCC had no other viable course of action.

The new rules don’t go as far as some would like. Broadband providers will not be required to lease their infrastructure to other companies interested in providing broadband service, which would do a great deal to increase competition and lower prices. However, the rules will require providers to treat all Internet traffic equally. I’ve noticed recently that Comcast has been throttling certain sites that I visit (such as digital comics seller Comixology), so these rules are certainly needed. The Internet has become too vital to daily life to allow telecom companies to continue operating in a completely unregulated environment.

Oct 222014

Ars Technica profiles the Uni, a tablet that is designed to translate American Sign Language into spoken English and vice versa. The startup company behind the Uni hopes that the device will help the deaf and hearing impaired communicate in a variety of everyday situations without relying on a human interpreter. For the Uni to achieve widespread adoption among the deaf community, it will need to overcome a high sticker price and a limited vocabulary. The vocabulary can be expanded through software updates, but price might be a more difficult issue to address (something that is true for a lot of assistive technology).

The Uni seems to rely on a combination of hardware and software to achieve its goals. As the technology on consumer tablets and phones improves, perhaps an app (or even the operating system) will be able to perform these functions. It might be a more cost-effective solution. In the meantime, let’s hope the Uni can get enough traction to continue development.

Oct 162014

It has become fashionable for technology writers to question the utility of the iPad. They point out that phones are becoming bigger and more powerful while competing tablets can provide the same functionality for less money. These observations are certainly true, but I remain a big fan of the device. Much of that has to do with my particular use cases for the iPad. The iPad allows me to read a book or watch video without being at my desk. And thanks to the addition of Switch Control in ios, I can operate the tablet with a single switch. No other tablet can beat the iPad in terms of accessibility.

When the iPad first debuted, many predicted that it would quickly supplant desktop and laptop computers. That hasn’t happened and I’m confident that the iPad will continue to thrive in a world of jumbo-sized phones. It will never match a phone’s portability, but it doesn’t need to. It needs to excel as a tablet, which it does.

Sep 202014

No, I won’t be upgrading to an iPhone 6. My 5S is still more than adequate for my relatively basic phone needs and I have absolutely no interest in the gargantuan 6 Plus. I suspect that my 5S could serve me for another couple years until the iPhone 7 implantable chip is released, but I’ll probably upgrade next year to ensure a decent resale value for my current phone.

I did upgrade my iStuff to iOS 8, which seems to have screwed up the Switch Control functionality to a degree. I can no longer “flick” through pages, which makes it a little more difficult to scroll through articles and the like. Hopefully, Apple will respond to my pleas to crush this particular bug. On the positive side, I do like the ability to answer phone calls on my iPad (and, beginning in October, texts from non-iStuff users). I would gladly pay Apple a healthy fee to bring this capability to my PC, but that is about as likely as me purchasing an iWatch.

Aug 152014

My family was in town this week for a low-key reunion, so posting has been particularly light. But here are a few stray thoughts for a Friday:

  • The news of Robin Williams’ death was a terrible shock. I loved his manic form of comedy that sometimes became a deluge of pop culture references. His humor channeled the Internet before the Internet was a thing. But I was also saddened by the harassment inflicted upon his daughter Zelda after she posted a tribute to her father on social media. I understand that even sociopaths have the right to express themselves, but it should be far easier to mute their toxic chatter on timelines and newsfeeds. The Internet is supposed to be a self-regulating platform, but that regulation seems to be lacking even as we become more dependent on the platform.
  • On a lighter note, I’m thoroughly enjoying Divinity: Original Sin. It’s a throwback to the isometric role-playing games of the 90’s such as Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, which are among my favorite titles. Divinity doesn’t offer much hand-holding, but I appreciate the opportunity to figure out things for myself. Between this and the forthcoming release of similar games like Pillars of Eternity, my gaming calendar should be booked through the winter.