Accessing inclusivity: why digital accessibility matters for consumer electronics manufacturers

Author : Mark Lippett | CEO | XMOS

01 December 2022

June 2022 saw the arrival of the deadline set by the EU’s European Accessibility Act (EAA), whereby all EU (European Union) member states are expected to introduce their own digital accessibility policies & sign them into law. This represents a significant step towards greater inclusivity, recognising how seriously this issue needs to be taken by smart device manufacturers worldwide...

This article was originally featured in the December 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Here, Mark Lippett, CEO at Bristol-based smart IoT chip firm, XMOS explains how the EAA highlights the growing importance of accessibility, the impact that it needs to have on the design of consumer electronics, and the role of AIoT (artificial intelligence of things) in making this feasible…

Once regarded as a mere functional “add-on”, digital accessibility has moved beyond the theoretical towards legal reality, making it a potentially serious threat to the reputation of brands. Manufacturers can’t afford to be caught out for non-compliance with these emerging regulations – especially when considering their implications for CSR (corporate social responsibility) and social equality.

The accessibility crucible  

In particular, this new legal requirement shines a spotlight on companies developing voice interfaces and other accessibility-related technologies, adding greater urgency to their work. These are now essential technologies – which many more electronics-enabled device manufacturers will have to build into their designs. Substitutes are no longer an option.

The directive emphasises the need for quality, regulation and consistency, which ultimately demands more from those involved in product design.

To voice, image & beyond

Introducing devices with voice functionalities will enhance the user experience for those most in need of modern, supportive forms of living. Far-field voice technology capable of functioning with clarity, even within noisy environments, stands out as a necessity among the various methods proposed to improve compliance in consumer products, particularly in assisting the visually impaired or those with limited mobility.

Devices featuring voice activation allow users to issue commands for assistance with daily tasks, without the need for movement or iris recognition. For example, occupants with visual complications can adjust the oven temperature through voice commands, eliminating the need to physically set the dials. The same goes for adjusting a smart lighting system, thermostat, or any device within the home environment, making these assistive technologies a major convenience.

That said, far-field voice technology isn’t the sole method through which the legislation of the EAA can be met. Emerging low frame-rate imaging technology also serves to further optimise home architectures, with the ability to recognise users entering a room, while also interpreting their location, physical gestures and other personal attributes. This is made possible via sensor arrays that can be installed on any device, contributing towards greater accessibility and comfort, while improving energy efficiency by activating only when required.

In addition to the core fields of visual and audio feedback, haptic technology offers another form of data capture for those with visual or aural impairments. Devices with tactile sensors can recognise touch-based inputs from users, offering somatic feedback through resistance, vibration or other motions, in addition to visual signage or voice commands.

These features stand to proliferate on a mass scale, as sensor and on-device processing functionalities increase in sophistication – but is today’s technology ecosystem geared up to deliver on this rapid growth? As wellness design consultant, Jamie Gold recently wrote in Forbes, the widespread adoption of voice control features – both generally and for those designed to assist with accessibility needs – are stifled by operational costs and a lack of cooperation between devices and systems.

Further investment is undoubtedly required to support companies that are developing the new technologies that are demanded by the EAA.

Towards accessible smart technologies

Legislation like the EAA demonstrates the necessity for device manufacturers to introduce technologies that guarantee a modern, convenient user experience (UX) that is fit for purpose – for all.

While it might be easier for device manufacturers to prioritise solving standard operational problems, there is now a clear incentive and requirement for them to also tackle the challenges of configuring and maintaining more sophisticated technologies that will significantly increase and improve accessibility.

This will require a major rethink on the part of designers. Typical cloud-based architectures for IoT (internet of things) devices are unable to address these concerns, with the need for Wi-Fi connectivity, configured “routines” and the need to navigate network outages presenting hurdles of their own. This is to say nothing of the increased risk to user privacy and potential for data breaches.

The solution will ultimately require dependence on the cloud to be reduced, and more intelligence to be embedded on-device or at the edge.

Other territories (especially those looking to sell into the EU) will inevitably take note of the precedent set by the EU in introducing this legislation, forming regulations of their own. This acts as a clarion call for the “smart thing” supply chain to move away from considerations around the self-interest of proprietary ecosystems and acknowledge the diverse needs of their customers. In doing so, they stand to benefit users with improved ease-of-use, guaranteeing inclusivity and accessibility, regardless of their requirements.

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