Despite countless technological advancements since the dawn of the Age of Technology, accounting for accessibility within the framework of these awe-inspiring inventions has largely been an afterthought.
Although today, companies such as Google and Apple have been ensuring accessibility is at the forefront of the design for their respective operating systems, there was one invention that acted as a catalyst for the future of Accessibility Tech to be created. The invention that was able to act as that catalyst was created over 50 years ago. Sidewalks and public spaces in many developed countries have these seemingly random, vibrantly colored strips of pavers with raised lines and domes. They were specifically designed like this so that those with visual impairments, using just their white cane, would be able to navigate anywhere in the world without the fear of being led somewhere potentially dangerous.
Seiichi Miyake of Okayama, Japan, was the original inventor of Tactile Paving. He had a close friend who was going blind back in the early 1960’s and he had noticed the lack of accessibility within the disabled community that his friend would soon be a part of. Using his own capital, he designed mats with little, raised domes as a way to indicate potential danger and safe routes. These mats were coined, “Tenji Blocks”, and shortly after their inception, public spaces in Okayama, Japan were rife with these tactile pavers. The Japanese government even went so far as to make them mandatory in all of their railways.
It became readily apparent that this was a technological breakthrough for this community; it meant that they finally had a semblance of autonomy. They were able to rely on something as simple as small, raised, cement circles paved into a sidewalk to move throughout their environment without the need to memorize routes, rely on a friend to walk with them, or constantly ask for assistance from strangers.
It is a truly revolutionary invention in a large sense because it created a linguistic expression that was not only proven indispensable for Blind/VI folks, but also for children and other people within the disabled community. Eventually, Miyake’s idea was adopted by major world powers as generic Tactile Paving in the 1990’s by the likes of the US, the UK, and Canada.
As aforementioned, tech companies have historically implemented accessibility features as an afterthought. The tech start-up based in Murcia, Spain, called NaviLens, saw the possibilities tech could have in empowering the Blind/VI community, and made the decision to embark on crafting more solutions.
NaviLens re-engineered the ever-popular “QR Code”. The disability-friendly app they developed, available on iOS and Android, works in tandem with the codes and provides features that many people from this community have deemed crucial all due to the sophisticated ingenuity that went into its design such as Computer Vision and the Three Dimensional Sonification System. The application provides users with the ability to quickly scan and identify the codes in milliseconds, from long distances, in their native language, without the need to focus the camera, without wifi/cellular connectivity, nor GPS. These are essential features for this community’s inclusion into the digital age.
NaviLens saw the opportunity to build a brighter future for the ways by which this community interacts with technology, their environment, and Tactile Paving.
As the relationship between people and technology continues to merge, it is imperative that we are actively accounting for those who society could potentially leave behind in the process in order to ensure their inclusion in the long run. NaviLens saw the need for further innovation in bridging the gap in functionality that disabled people experience in an attempt to prevent that future scenario that could quickly become a Human Rights concern. Just as they reinvented the QR code, they have lofty plans of bringing life to the already-existing Tactile Paving.
By overlaying a large, colorful NaviLens code over the existing tactile paving, it creates this new form of linguistic expression — a Visual and Auditory Braille.
Using one’s phone camera via the NaviLens app, it can provide improved autonomy and independence for someone who is disabled; it can provide a world of possibility such as the use of WayFinding within public spaces of all types like transportation stations, malls, museums, parks, and even whole cities.
This type of implementation could potentially show where the nearest store is, pharmacy, hospital, bus stop, post office, or even directions to one’s own neighborhood and house in the event the user happens to be lost. All of this happens right on the user’s display along with the in-app voice assistance that they will be hearing at the same time — perfect for those who use the “display curtain” option from their accessibility settings.
There are so many more possibilities with this technology that have yet to be conceptualized. All it takes is for one city to visualize those possibilities of this technology for the dream of complete autonomy for disabled persons to become a reality.
We live in a time period in which the smart city, or the city of the future, is upon us. It is of the utmost importance that we are accounting for accessibility in the inception of these cities.
With the power of NaviLens, someone who is Blind or has low vision can interact with their environment in a way that breaks down the barriers to access and inclusion. Even a sighted person of any age can enjoy this added level of interaction as NaviLens Go adds a virtual layer on top of one’s regular reality providing up-to-date details, directions, and so much more.
At the rate technology is advancing, we cannot continue to leave groups of people who are at risk of unintentional marginalization (or intentional for that matter) in the dark, and this is just one of the many things that can be done in order to prevent that very possible future scenario in which there is yet another violation of the rights of disabled persons instead of providing the autonomy, the independence, and most importantly, the inclusion that every person deserves.