Exoskeletons Become Reality

It wasn’t very long ago (see Robotics in Your Future) that I wrote about the role of robotics in accessibility, especially with regard to the exoskeleton. At that time, universities and several vendors were experimenting with exoskeletons and showing how they could help people walk. The software solutions I provide in Accessibility for Everybody are still part of the answer, but more and more it appears that technology will provide more direct answers, which is the point of this post. Imagine my surprised when I opened the September 2011 National Geographic and found an article about eLEGS in it. You can get the flavor of the article in video form on the National Geographic site. Let’s just say that I’m incredibly excited about this turn of events. Imagine, people who had no hope of walking ever again are now doing it!

We’ve moved from experimental to actually distributing this technology—the clinical trials for this device have already begun. The exoskeleton does have limits for now. You need to be under 6 foot 4 inches tall and weigh less than 220 pounds. The candidate must also have good upper body strength. Even so, it’s a great start. As the technology evolves, you can expect to see people doing a lot more walking. Of course, no one who has special needs is running a marathon in this gear yet. However, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotion these people feel when they get up and walk for the first time. The application of this technology is wide ranging. Over 6 million people currently have some form of paralysis that this technology can help.

eLEGS is gesture-based. The way a person moves their arms and upper body determines how the device reacts. Training is required. The person still needs to know how to balance their body and must expend the effort to communicate effectively with the device. I imagine the requirements for using this device will decrease as time goes on. The gestures will become less complex and the strength requirements less arduous.

So, what’s next? Another technology I’ve been watching for a while now is the electronic eye. As far as I know, this device hasn’t entered clinical trials as of yet, but the scientists are working on it. (It has been tested in Germany and could be entering trials in the UK.) The concept is simple. A camera in a special set of glasses transmits visual information to a chip implanted in the person’s eyeball. The chip transmits the required signals to the person’s brain through the optical nerve.  However, the implementation must be terribly hard because our understanding of precisely how all of this works is still flawed.

Even so, look for people who couldn’t walk to walk again soon and those who couldn’t see to see again sometime in the future. There will eventually be technologies to help people hear completely as well. (I haven’t heard of any technology that restores the senses of smell, taste, or touch to those who lack it.) This is an exciting time to live. An aging population will have an increasing number of special needs. Rather than make the end of life a drudge, these devices promise to keep people active. Where do you think science will go next? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

An Update On Special Needs Device Hacking

I previously posted an entry entitled Security and the Special Needs Person where I described current hacking attempts against special needs devices by security researchers. In that post, I opined that there was probably some better use of the researcher’s time. Rather than give hackers new and wonderful ways to attack the human race, why not find ways to develop secure software that would discourage attempts in the first place? Unfortunately, it seems as if the security researchers are simply determined to keep chewing on this topic until someone gets hurt or killed. I never even considered this topic in my book, “Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements” because it wasn’t an issue at the time of publication, but it certainly is now.

Now there is a ComputerWorld article that talks about wearable devices used to jam the signals of hackers trying to attack those with special needs devices. What do we do next—encase people in a Faraday cage so no one can bother them? I did find the paper referenced in the article, “They Can Hear Your Heartbeats: Non-Invasive Security for Implantable Medical Devices” interesting, but must ask why such measures even necessary. If security researchers would wait until someone actually thinks of an attack before they came up with a remedy, perhaps no one would come up with the attack.

The basis of the shielding technology mentioned in the ComputerWorld article is naive. Supposedly, the shield lets the doctor gain access to the medical device without allowing the hacker access. Unfortunately, if the doctor has access, so does the hacker. Someone will find a way to overcome this security measure, probably a security researcher, and another shield will have to be created that deflects the new attack. The point is that if they want the devices to be truly safe, then they shouldn’t send out a radio signal at all.

The government is involved now too. Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), senior members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have decided to task the the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with contacting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about rules regarding the safety and security of implantable medical devices. I can only hope that the outcome will be laws that make it illegal to even perform research on these devices, but more likely, the efforts will result in yet more bureaucracy and red tape.

There are a number of issues that concern me about the whole idea of people wearing radio transmitters and receivers full time. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be any research on the long term effects of wearing such devices. (I did find research papers such as, “In-Body RF Communications and the Future of Healthcare” that describe the hardware requirements for transmission, but research on what RF will do to the human body when used in this way seems sadly lacking.) These devices could cause cancer or other diseases. Fortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) does seem to be involved in a little research on the topic and you can read about it in their article entitled, “What are electromagnetic fields?“.

In addition, now that the person has to wear a jammer to protect the implantable medical device, there is a significant chance of creating interference. Is there a chance that the wearer could create unfortunate situations where the device intended to protect them actually causes harm? The papers I’ve read don’t appear to address this issue. However, given my personal experiences with electromagnetic interference (EMI), it seems quite likely that the combination of implantable medical device and jammer will almost certainly cause problems.

In summary, we have implanted medical devices that use radio signals to make it more convenient for the doctor to monitor the patient and possibly improve the patient’s health as a result. So far, so good. However, the decision to provide this feature seems shortsighted when you consider that security researchers just couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to find a way for hackers to exploit the devices. Then, there doesn’t seem to be any research on the long term negative effects of these devices on the patient or on the jammer that now seems necessary to protect the patient’s health. Is the potential for a positive outcome really worth all of the negatives? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Security and the Special Needs Person

I’ve written quite a bit about special needs requirements. In my view, everyone who lives long enough will have a special need sometime in their life. In fact, unless you’re incredibly lucky, you probably have some special need right now. It may not be a significant special need (even eyeglasses are a special need), but even small special needs often require another person’s help to fix.

Accessibility, the study of ways to accommodate special needs, is something that should interest everyoneespecially anyone who has technical skills required to make better accessibility aids a reality. It was therefore with great sadness that I read an eWeek article this weekend describing how one researcher used his talents to discover whether it was possible to kill someone by hacking into the device they require to live. Why would someone waste their time and effort doing such a terrible thing? I shook my head in disbelief.

There is a certain truth to the idea that the devices we use to maintain health today, such as insulin pumps, are lacking in security. After all, they are very much like any other Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) device, such as a car, from a software perspective and people are constantly trying to find ways to break into cars. However, cars are not peoplecars are easily replaced devices used for transport. If someone breaks into my car and steals it, I’m sad about it to be sure, but I’m still alive to report the crime to the police. If someone hacks into my pacemaker and causes it to malfunction, I’m just as dead as if they had shot me. In fact, shooting me would probably be far less cruel.

I know that there is a place for security professionals in the software industry, but I’ve become increasingly concerned that they’re focused too much on breaking things and not enough on making them work properly. If these professionals spent their time making software more secure in the first place and giving the bad guys fewer ideas of interesting things to try, then perhaps the software industry wouldn’t be rife with security problems now. Unfortunately, it’s always easier to destroy, than to create. Certainly, this sort of negative research gives the security professionals something to talk about even though it potentially destroys someone’s life in the process.

I’d like to say that this kind of behavior will diminish in the future, but history says otherwise. Unless laws are put in place to make such research illegal, well meaning security professionals will continue dabbling in matters that would be best left alone until someone dies (and even then the legal system will be slow in reacting to a significant problem). I doubt very much that time spent hacking into special needs devices to see just how much damage one can do helps anyone. What is your thought on the matter? Does this sort of research benefit anyone? Let me know what you think at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Robotics in Your Future

I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m intensely interested in accessibility in all its forms. In fact, in my view, one of the most important uses of computer systems is to make life easier for people with special needs. Eventually, we all experience a special need. If nothing else, age tends to rob us of mobility and the use of our senses, making some form of aid imperative.

Of course, most people are aware of robots. I read Asimov books such as, “I, Robot” with great interest as I grew up because like Asimov, I saw the huge potential of robots in a number of ventures. The first venture I became aware of was in industrial automationpainting cars I believe. Painting cars was only the beginning. Today, we couldn’t explore space successfully without robots.

All of these uses for robots are nice. However, the use that really piques my imagination is the use of robotic technology to help people in ways that we couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago. I’ve read with great interest about the use of exoskeletons for military personnel. Then, when the press started talking about the use of exoskeleton technology for the space program, I got really excited. However, a news story I read yesterday fulfills a promise for exoskeleton technology that I’ve always wanted to read about. In this case, a paralyzed student has been able to walk again. Amazing!

The technology still requires a lot of work, but I foresee a time when exoskeletons will make it possible for someone with just about any severe injury to lead a completely normal life. You won’t see someone who is struggling just to get by anymore; you’ll see someone who looks like absolutely everyone else. I can’t imagine a better use of technology to meet the needs of people who require it.

As with any technology, there are going to be abuses of this one. It’s unfortunate, but someone will find ways to use this technology in ways that actually hurt other humans or the person employing the technology. What good uses for this technology can you think about? What are the potential bad uses that come to mind? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering the Economics of Accessibility

People have asked in the past which book of mine is my favorite. I have a number of answers to that question. In one respect or another, all of my books are my favorite because they all answer different questions and help a different group of people. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the reason I write is because I truly enjoy helping others.

My reasons for writing “Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements” are many. However, one of the biggest reasons that I wrote it is because there are good economic reasons to make applications accessible to everyone. Not all of these reasons have a direct monetary impact, but I do express them in the first chapter of the book. The fact of the matter is that if your application isn’t accessible, you’re costing your company time and money. If you’re a store owner, you’re losing money every second that your organization uses applications that aren’t accessible.

Many
people associate accessibility with those who have special visual or
audio needs.  However, accessibility affects quite a large group of
people, including those who are colorblind. Did you realize that about 8% of the male population is colorblind,
which means that if your application isn’t accessible to this group
that you’re losing out on 8% of your sales right off the top? Can you
really miss out on that many sales? In short, accessibility is truly for everyone and everyone includes you.

It amazes me that some organizations just don’t seem to get it. Accessibility affects more than those people across the street; they affect you personally. At some point in life, you’re going to need an accessibility aid. Our eyes get older and can’t see as well, the ears refuse to hear, things wear out. So, the accessibility features you add to an application today will ultimately help you in some way. It’s the reason that I read about lawsuits such as the one between the National Federation of the Blind, NFB, and Google, and have to scratch my head. I have to wonder why such a lawsuit is even necessary.

Another reason I wrote my book is to show how easy it is to make applications accessible and to inform my readers about the laws regarding accessibility (laws that our government doesn’t enforce).  Creating an accessible application with the tools available today isn’t a major undertaking. In many cases you’re looking at a few extra minutes to add features such as speed keys and titles that a screen reader can read (the same titles appear as balloon help that sighted users also rely upon). It’s true that applications that make heavy use of full animation or video can become harder to make accessible, but these applications are in the minority. Most business applications require very little extra work.

If you think buying a book to learn about accessibility is just too expensive, I encourage you to make use of the free resources available on the Internet. Companies such as Microsoft want you to create accessible applications because they realize that it’s in their best interest to do so. These resources are incredibly easy to use and they make life easier for everyone. I’m always happy to hear about your insights regarding accessibility, so feel free to contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Potential Eye Gaze System Replacement

I view the computer as a great equalizer. People who have special needs can rely on a computer to give them access to the world at large and make them productive citizens. In fact, I’m often amazed at what a computer can do in the right hands. People who used to be locked away in institutions are now living independently with help from their computer. That’s why I read a ComputerWorld article today, “Look, no hands! G.tec uses brain interface to tweet” with great interest. I don’t think this system could replace eye gaze systems for those who need them today, but the system holds great potential as an eye gaze system replacement in the future.

So, just what is an eye gaze system? Imagine you have two cameras mounted on either side of a monitor. The cameras are focused on someone’s eye position. As the person moves their eyes to look at a letter on a card above the monitor, the cameras record the position and use the information to tell the computer what letter to type. Of course, eye gaze systems can be used for more than simply typing letters. Some of these systems are extremely complex and can record the viewer’s gaze at any position on the monitor. Check out the LC Technologies setup as a modern example of what an eye gaze system can do.

The problem with eye gaze systems is that they can be slow, error prone, and tiring to use. Unless the system is properly calibrated, using eye gaze to interact with a computer can become frustrating and time consuming. This brain computer interface is exciting because it promises higher speed (0.9 seconds once trained) and the potential for errors is greatly reduced. However, this system is still in its infancy, so eye gaze systems will continue to be important for people with special needs well into the future. You can read more about accessibility topics in my book, “Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements.” Let me know what you think of this new technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.