"Emerson Foulke once wrote (I am paraphrasing)
that we know more about what is involved in getting a man to the moon
than about what is involved in getting a blind person across a street."
The Institute for Innovative Blind Navigation (IIBN) was incorporated in October, 1997. It was created as a response to the steady and accelerating advancements being made in computer technology. Approximately every two years, computers double in power, drop in price, and shrink in size. This computer revolution is resulting in ever more sophisticated and affordable tools. It has fueled a revolution in genetics and molecular medicine.
A message on the inventors list serve
Those of us who work with blind individuals are seeing a steady stream of new technologies that make it easier for our students to navigate through an unseen world. As computers continue to get cheaper, smaller, and more powerful, we can expect the outpouring of new and improved technologies to continue. There are many trends that will play out as the computer revolution unfolds. Here is a summary of some of these trends:
The computer revolution will continue to advance exponentially. It is this "exponential" nature of technological change that is the key to understanding what will happen in the future. Computing (calculations per second) will get exponentially faster. Computers will move exponentially toward the invisible, disappearing into the walls, clothing, and into objects. Therefore, spaces, materials, objects, and life forms will become increasing more intelligent over time.
As the environment becomes loaded with embedded computers, and consequently as spaces (pathways, intersections, rooms) become smarter, new navigation tools and new wayfinding strategies will evolve for people who are blind. To use these new tools, and to interface with smart spaces, will require an expanded and sophisticated spatial literacy. For legal and moral purposes, it is best to refer to this category as "environmental literacy". Tools on the horizon, some of them developed enough to have products on the market, include global positioning satellites, dead reckoning; sentient computing, talking (smart) signage, portable phones; and continuous internet access. The more proficient an individual is using these systems, probably in combination, the more environmentally literate that person will be.
Clothing and objects worn on the body (jewelry, earrings, belt buckles, shirt buttons, etc.) will be the substrate for invisible computers. This is called "wearable computing." The clothing and objects on the body will all be separate computing systems. They will be linked together in a network (a "PAN:" Personal Area Network). This smart "body suit" will interface with smart spaces and smart external objects, as well as PANs worn by other human beings or animals. Computer controlled sensory units will be available that mediate and augment reality, digitally enhancing vision, olfaction, hearing, and touch. This is a fast evolving field with great potential for addressing the disabilities caused by body impairments. Navigation technologies for individuals who are blind will eventually become cheap, ever more powerful, and will become invisible (worn on the body).
Vision substitution strategies will emerge and evolve. These are systems that require alternative perceptual mastery. They are like Braille; they require early and vigorous training, adequate funding, and professionals trained to teach the use of the tools. Like Braille, they will need the support of consumers and professionals if they are to evolve. Perhaps like Braille, the results of using these new tools could be dramatic.
Obstacle detection tools will continue to evolve. These may be very sophisticated and powerful, yet easy to use. They will not be full featured perceptual alternatives, like vision substitution tools, but they will become increasingly effective.
Sensory technology (digital video and audio sensors, as well as olfactory and tactual systems) will be impacted by the computer revolution and will therefore continue to shrink in size, get cheap, and become more powerful. There are four broad areas that will be affected by sensory evolution.
First of all, robotic tools will proliferate. Objects will contain increasingly more intelligent computers. Some of these smart objects will be robotic, they will purposely move. The computer revolution will result in ever more capable, smarter, and cheaper artificial intelligence creatures. As sensors evolve, these robots will become more "life like." They will also evolve into tools for children (for play and companionship) and for adults who have disabilities.
Secondly, sensor technology will provide us with ever more sophisticated tools for understanding the human brain. We will diagnose brain problems ever more precisely, and locate the site of damage very exactly. This will help determine strategies and technologies for addressing disabilities.
Third, computer vision will evolve to provide instant feedback. As part of a wearable computer, this will become a real time navigation system for people who cannot see.
Fourth, internet vision or cyborg vision will allow for individuals to "see out of each others eyes". Steve Mann at the University of Toronto has a Seeing Eye People Project in which cyborgs wearing video systems can log in over the internet to see what others are looking at. This has potential as a system for the blind cyborg (who could request that others on the "seeing net" interpret visual scenes as needed in real time).
The computer chips that make possible wearable computing and the Personal Area Network, will be increasingly implanted inside the human body. An "Internal Area Network (IAN)" will evolve with the capability of networking with any other internal or external network (from smart spaces to the internet). Nano technology will eventually shrink these implants to the invisible. They will become tiny, smart (programmable), robotic "cells."
EightThe biotechnology revolution will eventually supplant all the above technologies. We will have tissue repair, tissue engineering, and genetic surgery. Brains and eyes will be rejuvenated and repaired as needed. The beginning of this wonderful journey (filled with moral dilemmas and terrifying hazards) can be seen in stem cell evolution, and in DNA transfer technologies (that have resulted in cloning and in genetic repair). Acceleration of computer technology is making this science fiction speculation look more and more attainable with each passing day.
All of the above developments are causing an exponential explosion in the amount of knowledge that each of us must attempt to absorb. Industrial institutions are not up to the task of changing fast enough to accommodate, therefore opportunities are missed and dangers go unrecognized.
Complexity is increasing. Our tools will get ever more complicated. This will cause an increase in the varieties and quantity of jobs available, so economically we are in the middle of a revolution. Practically, however, we are overwhelmed by the knowledge explosion and we cannot be trained fast enough to adequately learn all the new technologies. Set up times, compatibility conflicts, training time, and steep learning curves conspire to reduce the benefits of the new technologies.
Specialization is increasing. There is too much new information, arriving too fast, getting more complex with each upgrade. We are going to have to pick our focus, constantly prioritize, and become life long learners. We must also move over and make room for new specialists as they take over segments of our professional world.
Human beings are turning more and more into cyborgs. All technologies will converge and become wearable and implantable. This trend can be seen as hand held technologies stuff more and more applications into ever smaller boxes. They are remotes, phones, cameras, personal assistants, tablet computers, GPS units, radios, walkie talkies, and more. These functions will migrate to clothing, and then to the body itself- on it and in it.
Individuals and small groups are becoming empowered (off the shelf technology is exploding). Cottage industries will increasingly expand on the internet. Consumers will have ever more choice, more variety, and more stimulation. This is what is fueling consumer empowerment. With each passing day, we are closer to custom designed navigation systems. Consumers will be able to receive tailor made wayfinding systems based on their current needs and desires. The technology is awaiting consumer demand.
Wave after wave of innovation is becoming the norm (new surprises, new advancements arrive each day in the news). Dangers and opportunities are growing exponentially. There is increasing need for life long education, minute to minute (real time) education, the consumer and the teacher must become members of an educational guild.
FifteenThe future is everyone's concern. More and more we need to monitor developments.
We can also invent our future: what kind of future do we want to invent? The quality of our choices becomes very important; ethics is everyone's concern.
Here are some thoughts that people have asked me to remember (usually after one of my pontificating speeches about the wonders of technology):
Technology can be wonderful when it isn't broken (sitting on a shelf waiting for tech support to call back). It is always less wonderful than the hype, and the person who needs the technology turns out to be an individual with specific needs not addressed by universal design (call tech support). Be careful not to fall in love with technologies from the media descriptions. The technologies are wonderful, full of potential and hope, but they also come with "heavy baggage".
"If the number of people using the internet continues to expand exponentially, very soon there will be more people on the internet than there are people!" (from a television commercial). Be careful to remember that human beings are linear creatures, we put one leg at a time into the pants. Exponential growth brings exponentially more complex social, ethical, and emotional issues. Technology comes bundled with these problems.
Human relationships are what is important. Human beings can be kind, empathetic, and determined to help, or they can be something less. Many of us went into human service professions because we wanted to interact with our fellow humans in a quality way. It does not matter how wonderful the technologies are if there is no human warmth, no "poetry in the moment". Be careful not to apply technology insensitively.
Be careful also to remember that technologies are just tools. Don't attach emotion to the inventions themselves. Either use the technology or don't. One man's tool is another man's irritation. Don't judge another human being because of the tools they do or don't choose to use.
Most technology, especially cutting edge, emerging technology, is not easy to understand and/or use. Almost always training is required and there is often a long, steep learning curve.
There are no technologies that solve everybody's needs. Technology has to be adapted to the individual, applied to specific tasks (modified as task demands change), and upgraded as people get older, as their needs change, and as they progress in their training.
Now that I summarized what you wanted to tell me, we can get on with the wonderment.