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Stair-Climbing Wheelchairs, Closed-Caption Glasses: Assistive Tech Gains at CES in Las Vegas

January 07, 2023

The smartphone revolution of the past decade, which reduced the cost of super-efficient processors and tiny cameras, is now enabling innovators to create subtler, more effective tools to assist people with disabilities.

Accessibility is among the consumer trends in focus in Las Vegas this week at CES, a global technology bazaar where companies offer clues about what’s coming in the year ahead and beyond.

Cosmo Moore, who is 39, is a stay-at-home dad living with a genetic vision disorder that conventional glasses can’t fix. To see his children’s faces, he leans down until their noses are about a foot away. He holds his iPhone an inch from his face to make out text.

In 2017, he crowdsourced $10,000 to buy 3, a vision-assistance headset with a wired remote controller. He later became a paid part-time product coach for the company. In 2020, the company upgraded him to the eSight 4, which offered more freedom and better vision but still looked like virtual-reality goggles. In November, he began testing the eSight Go prototype, which eliminates the wraparound head strap. The new device is almost inconspicuous.

“Usually, even if people aren’t paying attention to you, you feel like they are,” Mr. Moore said, noting the clunkiness of earlier eSight models. “This one is a lot more low-key. From afar, it looks like I’m wearing a pair of sunglasses.”

As parts for electronics have gotten cheaper, smaller and more powerful, startups that build assistive devices have been able to streamline and add features to their products. The new tools and devices have shed bulk—and stigma.

“There are times when looking a little different is OK,” said Gary Wunder, editor of the Braille Monitor, the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind. “But I don’t want things that can be made cosmetically pleasing to look really different and strange.”

The spotlight on accessible technology also comes as Americans face financial strain, which might drive people to put “need” purchases over “want” purchases, analysts say. And while the price tag for innovative assistive devices is often initially too high for many people who need them, startups are trying out subscription payment models for gadgets that insurance won’t cover, said Andy Miller, senior vice president of innovation and product development at AARP. Older Americans represent a growing audience for assistive technology, and fuel a growing demand for increased accessibility in other products.

Some larger companies are paying attention. At CES, L’Oréal announced plans to release late this year Hapta, a computerized makeup device with motion controls, to help people with limited arm mobility apply lipstick. Samsung Electronics is adding a mode to new TVs which can outline shapes and content for visually impaired viewers.

But much of the new hardware comes from startups, which analysts and investors say benefit from targeting audiences that might be too small for corporate giants.

At CES, Toronto-based eSight showed its coming wearable for people with vision impairment caused by macular degeneration, glaucoma and other eye conditions. The eSight Go, which Mr. Moore has been testing, is designed to be easier to wear than its predecessors. While the battery for the eSight 4 was in a wraparound headband, the Go’s battery is worn around the neck.

The glasses use a camera to pick up what the wearer wouldn’t typically be able to see and then project those images onto monitors closer to the eye. This helps wearers to better identify faces, read expressions and live more independently, the company says. Software processing and manual brightness, contrast and color controls can optimize the picture.

The company partners with optometry clinics to identify new patients, then pairs them with coaches with similar vision loss. While the company hasn’t yet announced a price for the eSight Go, it expects to charge much less than the $7,000 price tag on the eSight 4, said Roland Mattern, director of marketing at eSight.

Another CES exhibitor,, is developing a shoulder-worn device that uses cameras and artificial intelligence to aid people with vision problems.

Boston-based startup Xander is in Las Vegas showing glasses that can provide real-time closed captions for everyday conversations, to help people with hearing loss.

The glasses have an embedded display on the right side, where text appears almost as quickly as it’s picked up by a built-in microphone. There’s no wireless connection—all processing happens within the glasses.

Many similar devices use the phone for the processing, said Alex Westner, founder of Xander, who studied acoustics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he didn’t think it was dependable enough, so he chose augmented-reality frames by Vuzix, which contain processing power similar to a smartwatch. Xander built its speech-to-text software on Kaldi, an open-source tool kit for voice applications.

Choosing frames that more closely resemble traditional glasses was important, too, Mr. Westner said.

“Everybody cares about how they look, and glasses are personal accessories, so they had to look good,” he said. “They couldn’t look like special needs or disability glasses.”

The Scewo Bro is an adjustable-height wheelchair designed by roboticists and inspired by luxury vehicles.

“We wanted it to look like a supercool mobility solution,” said Thomas Gemperle, co-founder at Swiss startup Scewo. “People may ask what it is, but they never ask if it’s a wheelchair.”

The device is about the same size as a traditional powered wheelchair, but it has two wheels and a pair of tank-like treads for rocky terrain and stair climbing. When approaching stairs, users tap a button. Laser sensors detect how steep the stairs are, and the chair automatically adjusts for the climb.

The company tested it with several hundred wheelchair users and tweaked the design based on their feedback.

“People said they wanted to be able to go up high to talk to others at eye level, but also be low when it’s time to eat at a table,” said Bernhard Winter, another co-founder.

The product is already out in Switzerland, where the company says most users offset its cost with insurance. Scewo hopes to sell the product in the U.S. in the coming years for roughly $40,000. The company hopes health insurance can help reduce the out-of-pocket cost.

Source: Wall Street Journal