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Is the time ripe to invest in Assistive Technology? Assistive technology is screaming of opportunity and innovation

By Priyank Gupta

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Technology is eating the world and markets are facing rapid disruptions across all domains. Every business model is being challenged and with technology at core, new age alternatives are ruthlessly phasing out the age old thinking. World markets with Asia in particular are going through a shift. Asian markets which were associated with outsourcing model for so long are turning into product dominant ecosystem. Intellectual property and ideas are being generated for self and economy is teeming with new start-ups.

Among all domains and business models assistive technology is a segment that has seen lesser disruption compared to others. Assistive technology is screaming of opportunity and innovation. For the un-initiated, according to Wikipedia assistive technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using them.

It is worth noting that while a lot of fragmented activity is happening in this space, there is a huge scope and potential in this domain. The space is rich in opportunity and is awaiting right solutions to disrupt it. It has never been easier to do this until now and let me elaborate on why I think so.

Technology is evolving faster than before

Over the past decade we have seen tremendous progress with technology. Newer discoveries combined with higher computing power in smaller form factor have become the foundation of many new age devices. Mainstream commercial markets are thriving and rapidly adapting to technology that generates mass demand.

Assistive technology and devices on the other hand have always been a niche domain. For instance 90% of 285 million people across the world, who suffer from visual impairment, live in low income settings. The group which can afford expensive technology to improve the quality of life is small. The remaining target group is price conscious and have limited affordability. While this has been true for all these years, it is worth noting that technology is getting accessible and cheaper by day.

Technology powerhouses like Google, Facebook and Microsoft are increasingly open sourcing their products and frameworks. This allows rest of the world to build solutions that at core are powered by technology built by these companies. Github and other open online code hosting platforms act as a technology water hole where solutions for technology problems can be exchanged and discovered.

Tooling is more sophisticated than before and yet cheaper. Choices are ever increasing and there are multiple options with languages, frameworks and protocols that solve a specific problem in a more efficient and cost effective manner. Cloud has eased the problems surrounding hardware scalability and brought down the infrastructure setup/maintenance cost.

There is an untapped market out there

Assistive devices can help improve the quality of life drastically. The return on that investment is seen and felt on daily basis, if it can deliver high value for low prices. Statistics indicate that majority of customer segment falls under low income groups with limited affordability. It is possible now to replace expensive solutions with cheaper alternatives using open hardware components and open source technology. This allows us to efficiently overcome the price barrier that stands in the way of untapped market and demand.

State of our technology landscape has presented us with a unique opportunity where we can build solutions to tap into this demand and create unexplored markets that have been signed off as niche until now. Both open hardware and open source software are available with massive community support and constantly evolving. The access to source code and hardware design reduces the entry barrier and communities bring down the support cost exponentially. Both the domains and access to components need not be niche anymore.

Mobile platform as a uniform interface

Even if multiple assistive devices can be created with new technology to improve quality of life, one of the challenges for a person with assistive needs is managing multiple devices and interfaces for various needs. Each new interface has a learning curve that can make adoption of the device itself difficult, especially when value provided in comparison to the time investment is not proportionate.

All nations developed and developing have seen an unprecedented mobile penetration. Population rich countries like India and China have more mobile users compared to developed nations. Our planet with a population of approximately 7.1 billion is already ripe with 7.9 billion mobile devices. People across spectrum of assistance needs have adopted mobile phone and have found ways to bridge existing challenges. It is important to identify that a platform like mobile has the ability to provide a consistent interface to operate a wide variety of assistive devices. It also has a potential to allow interoperability of devices with open standards. Before the advent and adoption of mobile, building standards and interoperability relied on OEM collaboration and understanding. However with a combination of mobile as a uniform platform and ingenious design it is possible to expose interoperability via mobile, making it easier to integrate with 3rd party applications that provides complementary capabilities.

Imagine an open source library that can translate local languages to text and relay that text to host of connected assistive devices. Multiple assistive devices can leverage a core functionality like that to perform varied set of operations without having to re-invent the wheel every time. This brings down the cost of devices overall and promotes standards and reusability across solutions.

Low entry barrier and timing

Assistive technology is not a new domain and barrier to build a new product in this domain has traditionally been high. While evolving technology has made the barrier negligible it is still a daunting undertaking. Hardware knowledge has been a niche and platform architectures have been propriety. Established players in the field exercise faire amount of control over majority of demand. Designing and building a hardware product is also cost intensive and requires upfront investment, which can often act as a huge deterrent for someone to invest in this space.

The great news is that shrinking world of digital distances and knowledge has eased down these problems to a far more bearable extent. A plethora of knowledge sharing organizations have made it possible to acquire advanced knowledge on topic that were privy to formal education channels. Portals like Coursera, Udemy and Edex provide a compelling means that act as a enabler in terms of technology.

Open hardware projects have simplified hardware prototyping. Online crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter is a great alternative to validate adoption and interest in a business idea and accumulate initial funds needed to build a feasible prototype. Open source software is more popular than ever before and continues to reduce the development cost of components.

With all the aspects working in favour of investing in assistive devices, the timing couldn't be more impeccable. Organizations are rapidly augmenting their capabilities in IoT (Internet of Things) domain for the listed reasons. Assistive devices are often an IoT sub-segment that leverage similar family of devices and platforms to provide assistive capabilities and are a natural emerging choice to invest more in.

Priyank Gupta is a solution consultant at Sahaj Software Solutions. An Infosys alum, Priyank is a polyglot system designer and is a strong advocate of FOSS (Free and open source software).

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