Technology at CES 2019

At CES, Assistive Technology and Accessibility are King

CES is often the event that cynical industry colleagues love to complain about the most. To be sure, the post-holiday timing, smoke-filled hotels and gridlock traffic as 200,000 people from around the world converge on Sin City every year for the biggest conference on the planet is enough to exhaust even the most resilient marketers. This is especially true this year, with consumer trust in companies shaken by data breaches, political misinformation campaigns, and speculation of a looming global recession.

Still, CES can be one of the best ways to take the “innovation temperature” for the coming year, spotting trends and opportunities to inform our clients’ innovation agenda. And standing out among the admittedly impressive and supremely Instagrammable LG curved TV installations, the $10,000 smart toilet and the machine that folds your clothes, we were pleased to see a meaningful groundswell of product developers creating “tech for all” – in particular applying technology to products and platforms to make the world more accessible for every user.

For example, in its Retail Experience Center on the ground floor of the Sands Expo, Microsoft showcased its Xbox Accessibility features, including its Adaptive Controller, designed especially for gamers with limited mobility. The controller can plug into other pieces like larger joysticks or foot- or shoulder-operated paddles so that anyone can play, regardless of skill level or physical ability.

Also in the Sands, mobility company Whill demo’d its proposed solution to updating legacy wheelchair models to become “intelligent personal electric vehicles,” with a fully autonomous, all-terrain mobile chair that could be summoned like a Lyft and help the approximately 17 million + Americans with ambulatory issues today. The vision is for the vehicles to be available first in places like airports and theme parks, where they could be summoned by a user through an app, and then return autonomously to a charging dock when not in use.

Similarly, Toyota announced the five finalists of its Global Mobility Challenge, where it asked for solutions to update the conventional wheelchair to improve the lives of people with lower-limb paralysis. Proposed solutions range from an exo-skeleton on wheels that assists individuals with standing and sitting, removing the need for a chair itself; and a super lightweight, smart wheel chair that self-balances and helps users navigate hills with motion sensors that adapt to the user, as well as power-assist that helps with going up and down hills.

French company Helipicto demo’d its technology aimed at helping nonverbal people communicate more effectively. Billed as “AI for Autism”, the app-based platform translates verbal speech into pictograms, aiding in communication, understanding, and autonomy for users.

And perhaps the biggest boon for assistive tech has been the pervasiveness of voice and virtual assistant technology, integrated into cars and smart home devices across every show floor at this year’s CES. Whether with Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri, more people with impaired vision or ambulatory issues are now able to use voice to manage daily tasks more quickly, including communication, locking or unlocking doors, setting medication or other reminders, and doing quick searches for information without the need for enhanced screens or special technology. Experts have noted the limitations of voice tech for those with speech difficulties, though the release of “Tap to Alexa", which is text- rather than voice-driven, as well as Microsoft’s AI accessibility program, point to consumer tech companies starting to think about all users more inclusively.

While these examples demonstrate how some companies are making assistive technology more central to their offerings, clearly there is much more work that can be done. Assistive technology represents a huge opportunity to empower even more users through mobility, voice, and AI and machine learning, especially when accessibility is core to the product’s design from the start. And crucially, we believe that the opportunity for normalizing accessibility comes not just through product design, but also by making it central to a brand’s narrative in creative and media. As we continue into 2019, brands should ask themselves: what are we doing to make our products more accessible to all people? And what steps can we take to ensure that message is central to our communications, and how our brand is experienced through media?

Lacey Tompkins, Associate Director, Display and Jesse Meza, Lead, Display, also contributed to this blog post.