Luis Perez loves taking photographs. He shoots mostly on an iPhone, snapping gorgeous pictures of sunsets, vintage cars, old buildings and cute puppies. But when he arrives at a photo shoot, people are often startled when he pulls out a long white cane.
In addition to being a professional photographer, Mr. Perez is almost blind.
“With the iPhone I am able to use the same technology as everyone else, and having a product that doesn’t have a stigma that other technologies do has been really important to me,” said Mr. Perez, who is also an advocate for blind people and speaks regularly at conferences about the benefits of technology for people who cannot see. “Now, even if you’re blind, you can still take a photo.”
Smartphones and tablets, with their flat glass touch screens and nary a texture anywhere, may not seem like the best technological innovation for people who cannot see. But advocates for the blind say the devices could be the biggest assistive aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s.
Counterintuitive? You bet. People with vision problems can use a smartphone’s voice commands to read or write. They can determine denominations of money using a camera app, figure out where they are using GPS and compass applications, and, like Mr. Perez, take photos.
Google’s latest releases of its Android operating systems have increased its assistive technologies, specifically with updates to TalkBack, a Google-made application that adds spoken, audible and vibration feedback to a smartphone. Windows phones also offer some voice commands, but they are fewer than either Google’s or Apple’s.
Among Apple’s features are ones that help people with vision problems take pictures. In assistive mode, for example, the phone can say how many heads are in a picture and where they are in the frame, so someone who is blind knows if the family photo she is about to take includes everyone.
All this has come as a delightful shock to most people with vision problems.
“We were sort of conditioned to believe that you can’t use a touch screen because you can’t see it,” said Dorrie Rush, the marketing director of accessible technology at Lighthouse International, a nonprofit vision education and rehabilitation center. “The belief was the tools for the visually impaired must have a tactile screen, which, it turns out, is completely untrue.”
Ms. Rush, who has a retinal disorder, said that before the smartphone, people who were visually impaired could use a flip-phone to make calls, but they could not read on the tiny two-inch screens. While the first version of the iPhone allowed people who were losing their vision to enlarge text, it wasn’t until 2009, when the company introduced accessibility features, that the device became a benefit to blind people.
While some companies might have altruistic goals in building products and services for people who have lost their sight, the number of people who need these products is growing.
About 10 million people in the United States are blind or partly blind, according to statistics from the American Foundation for the Blind. And some estimates predict that over the next 30 years, as the vast baby boomer generation ages, the number of adults with vision impairments could double.
Apple’s assistive technologies also include VoiceOver, which the company says is the world’s first “gesture-based screen reader” and lets blind people interact with their devices using multitouch gestures on the screen. For example, if you slide a finger around the phone’s surface, the iPhone will read aloud the name of each application.
In a reading app, like one for a newspaper, swiping two fingers down the screen will prompt the phone to read the text aloud. Taking two fingers and holding them an inch apart, then turning them in a circle like opening a padlock calls a slew of menus, including ones with the ability to change VoiceOver’s rate of speech or language.
The iPhone also supports over 40 different Braille Bluetooth keyboards.
On all the mobile platforms, people with vision loss say, the real magic lies in the hundreds of apps that are designed specifically to help people who are blind.
There are apps that can help people see colors, so pointing their phones at an object will yield a detailed audio description of the color, like “pale yellow green” or “fresh apricot.” People who are blind say these apps open up an entirely new way of seeing the world. Light detection apps can emit a sound that intensifies when someone approaches a light source. This can be used to help people find a room’s exit, locate a window or turn off a light. There are apps that read aloud e-mails, the weather, stock prices as well as Twitter and Facebook feeds.
In the United States, one of the biggest challenges for blind people is figuring out a bill’s denomination. While coins are different sizes, there is no such differentiation between a $1 bill and a $100 bill. In the past, people with impairments had someone who could see help them fold notes differently to know which was which, or they carried an expensive third-party device, but now apps that use the camera can identify the denomination aloud.
“Before a smartphone was accessible we had to carry six different things, and now all of those things are in one of those devices,” Ms. Rush said. “A $150 money reader is now a $1.99 app.”
She added: “These devices are a game-changer. They have created the era of inclusion.”
While some app makers have made great efforts to build products that help people with impairments, other developers overlook the importance of creating assistive components.
Mr. Perez said what he could do now with his smartphone was inconceivable just a few years ago. But even well-known apps like Instagram, which he uses to share some of his photos, do not mark all of their features.
“When some developers design their apps, they don’t label all of their buttons and controls, so the screen reader just says, ‘This is a button,’ but it doesn’t say what the button actually does,” Mr. Perez said. “That’s an area where we need a lot of improvement.”
AMAZON ERROR ALLOWED ALEXA USER TO EAVESDROP ON ANOTHER HOME
A user of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant in Germany got access to more than a thousand recordings from another user because of “a human error” by the company.
The customer had asked to listen back to recordings of his own activities made by Alexa but he was also able to access 1,700 audio files from a stranger when Amazon sent him a link, German trade publication c’t reported.
“This unfortunate case was the result of a human error and an isolated single case,” an Amazon spokesman said.
The first customer had initially got no reply when he told Amazon about the access to the other recordings, the report said. The files were then deleted from the link provided by Amazon but he had already downloaded them on to his computer, added the report from c’t, part of German tech publisher Heise.
CRYPTOCURRENCY INDUSTRY FACES INSURANCE HURDLE TO MAINSTREAM AMBITIONS
Cryptocurrency exchanges and traders in Asia are struggling to insure themselves against the risk of hacks and theft, a factor they claim is deterring large fund managers from investing in a nascent market yet to be embraced by regulators.
Getting the buy-in from insurers would mark an important step in crypto industry efforts to show that it has solved the problem of storing digital assets safely following the reputational damage of a series of thefts, and allow it to attract investment from mainstream asset managers.
“Most institutionally minded crypto firms want to buy proper insurance, and in many cases, getting adequate insurance coverage is a regulatory or legal requirement,” said Henri Arslanian, PwC fintech and crypto leader for Asia.
“However, getting such coverage is almost impossible despite their best efforts.”
Many asset managers are interested in digital assets. A Greenwich Associates survey, published in September, said 72% of institutional investors who responded to the research firm believe crypto has a place in the future.
Last month, Mohamed El-Erian, Allianz’s chief economic adviser said that cryptocurrencies would gain wider acceptance as institutions began to invest in the space.
Most have held off investing so far however, citing regulatory uncertainty and a lack of faith in existing market infrastructure for storing and trading digital assets following a series of hacks, as well the plunge in prices.
The total market capitalisation of crypto currencies is currently estimated at approximately US$120bil (RM502bil) compared to over US$800bil (RM3.3tril) at its peak in January.
“Institutional investors who are interested in investing in crypto will have various requirements, including reliable custody and risk management arrangements,” said Hoi Tak Leung, a senior lawyer in Ashurst’s digital economy practice.
“Insufficient insurance coverage, particularly in a volatile industry such as crypto, will be a significant impediment to greater ‘institutionalisation’ of crypto investments.”
Regulatory uncertainty is another problem for large asset managers. While crypto currencies raise a number of concerns for regulators, including money laundering risks, few have set out clear frameworks for how cryptocurrencies should be traded, and by whom.
Insurance might allay some of the regulators’ concerns around cyber security. Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission recently said it was exploring regulating crypto exchanges, and signalled that the vast majority of the virtual assets held by a regulated exchange would need insurance cover.
Keeping crypto assets secure involves storing a 64 character alphanumeric private key. If the key is lost, the assets are effectively lost too.
Assets can be stored online, in so-called hot wallets, which are convenient to trade though vulnerable to being hacked, or in ‘cold’ offline storage solutions, safe from hacks, but often inconvenient to access frequently.
Over US$800mil worth of crypto currencies were stolen in the first half of this year according to data from Autonomous NEXT, a financial research firm.
Some institutions have started working to solve this problem, and may provide fierce competition to the incumbent players.
This year, Fidelity, and a group including Japanese investment bank Nomura have launched platforms that will offer custody services for digital assets.
Despite the industry’s complaints, insurers say that they do offer cover. Risk advisor Aon, received some two dozen inquiries this year from exchanges and crypto vaults seeking insurance, according to Thomas Cain, regional director, commercial risk solutions, at Aon’s Asian financial services and professions group.
“It is not difficult to insure companies that hold large amounts of crypto assets, but given the newness of the asset class and the publicity some of the crypto breaches have received, applicants need to make an effort to distinguish themselves,” Cain said.
The industry also says it is getting closer to solving the custody problem.
“This year there have been a number of developments, and some providers have developed custody solutions suitable for institutional clients’ needs,” said Tony Gravanis, managing director investments at blockchain investment firm Kenetic Capital.
“Players at the top end of the market have also been able to get insurance,” he said.
But this is not the case for all.
One cryptocurrency broker, declining to be named because of the subject’s sensitivity, said insurers struggled to understand the new technology and its implications, and that even those who were prepared to provide insurance would only offer limited cover. “We’ve not yet found an insurer who will offer coverage of a meaningful enough size to make it worthwhile,” he said. – Reuters
CTECH’S THURSDAY ROUNDUP OF ISRAELI TECH NEWS
Scrapped London Skyscraper set to dominate Tel Aviv skyline. A tower ditched mid-construction in London due to the economic downturn of 2008 is now being resurrected in Tel Aviv in the midst of the city’s unprecedented tech boom. Watch the video
Acquisition by Medtronic complete, Mazor delists. Medtronic paid $1.3 billion in cash for the Israeli surgical robotics company. Including Medtronic’s existing stake, the deal is valued at $1.7 billion. Read more
Israelis receive 8.5 spam calls a month, according to Truecaller. The country ranked last among the top 20 countries affected by spam calls in 2018, according to a new report released by the company. Read more
Innoviz expands globally, sets up a commercial manufacturing line in China.The Israel-based LiDAR maker has doubled its employee count in the past year and intends to recruit additional personnel for research and development, business and sales. Read more
Particle analyzer company PML sold following liquidation. The company developed electro-optical systems for monitoring and measuring fluid particle sizes and concentration.