2015's most intriguing innovations

From a multitalented digital assistant to a watch that taps you, the past year featured exciting advances in accessible technology

An Apple Watch, a 6dot Braille Label Maker and an Amazon Echo

Three of 2015's most intriguing assistive technology breakthroughs – the Apple Watch, 6dot Braille Label Maker and Amazon Echo – could be used by everyone, including people with blindness and other disabilities.

December 28, 2015

Emerging technologies offer new opportunities to address challenges for all people, including people with blindness and other disabilities. In 2015, interesting technology trends included wearables, voice recognition, smart devices, drones, robotics and many more. In our opinion, the following are among the top assistive technology breakthroughs of 2015.

1. Apple Watch

Perkins Solutions Technology Specialist Joann Becker can’t wait to get her hands on an Apple Watch. “I’ll be able to get email, respond to it and use all of the fitness apps I am really into – all on one device,” she said. “That excites me.”

Like the iPhone, the Apple Watch has built-in accessibility features including magnification and VoiceOver, which reads aloud what’s on the screen. Alerts are given using what Apple calls the “Taptic Engine,” which gives the wearer the feeling of a gentle tap on the wrist when they receive a notification.  It’s an exciting new way to use a sense other than sight and hearing to interact with technology.

2. 6dot Braille Label Maker

What started out as an entry in MIT’s 2009 IDEAS Global Challenge finally became available to consumers in 2015. The 6dot Braille Label Maker makes it easy for anyone to create braille labels, including those who are sighted. Using this sleek device, teachers and parents can create braille-rich environments for students and children who are visually impaired.

“A braille label maker is essential for making your own customized labels for books, toys and your child’s personal belongings,” said Perkins parent Hillary Kleck. While braille labelers have been around for years, the 6dot Braille Label Maker incorporates all the features users could want – a portable, ergonomic design, a built-in braille keyboard with optional QWERTY keyboard connectivity, and sturdy construction for a long life span.

3. Amazon Echo

The Amazon Echo is a matte black cylinder, slightly more than 9 inches high. But packed inside is a personal digital assistant, an audio entertainment center and a “smart home” hub. “The greatest thing about the Echo is you can use it for so many different things,” said Jerry Berrier, a National DeafBlind Equipment Distribution Program Manager.

The Amazon Echo is completely controlled by voice, making it a valuable tool for people who are blind or visually impaired. Users can command it to play music, solve math problems, stream audio books from audible.com, set alarms, order items from Amazon.com, provide weather reports or sports scores, and even control certain appliances in their home. It’s a small device that does a lot.

What to watch in 2016:

Keep an eye on The Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities, which has committed $20 million to promote innovation for people with disabilities by supporting nonprofits with big ideas. 

Kelsey Bronski is a marketing and sales support coordinator at Perkins Solutions.