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posted: 8/10/2013 6:37 AM

With wearable technology, a new independence for people with disabilities

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  • Google Glass team members wear Google Glasses at a booth at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco.

      Google Glass team members wear Google Glasses at a booth at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco.
    Bloomberg/May 2013

 
Bloomberg

It's been 18 years since Tammie Lou Van Sant held a camera. But nearly two decades after a car accident left her paralyzed from the chest down, Van Sant is shooting again -- thanks to a device that could be part of technology's next big trend.

Google's Glass headset, which connects to users' smartphones and displays information on a screen that hovers above one eye, is the first of what analysts say may be a new trend of wearable technology -- headsets, watches, fitness trackers and other devices that are worn, rather than slipped into a pocket. Analysts say growing interest in wearable tech could translate into big money for technology firms, with projected sales of up to 9.6 million of such devices worldwide by the end of 2016.

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But the new technology also has raised new concerns about privacy. Lawmakers in Europe and the United States have asked Google to clarify its privacy policy in relation to Google Glass. For example, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, last month pressed the company for information on how it will protect the privacy of passers-by who may not realize they're being filmed by the handset.

Google has told lawmakers it's "thinking carefully" about the privacy issues that have arisen along with its plans to bring Glass to the mass market as soon as next year.

But for some people with disabilities, the rise of wearable technology has given them a new measure of independence.

Google has distributed hundreds of the handsets for testing. For Van Sant, 52, being an early Google Glass user means a return to a much-missed photography hobby as well as the ability to answer her own phone calls, respond to text messages and take small trips on her own using the headset's access to Google Maps.

"I just go out into the world now," she said. "I can take pictures or do anything I want."

Until now, wearable devices to help people with disabilities were -- by and large -- developed by medical companies or garage hobbyists who gave little thought to a wider consumer market. New consumer interest in wearables, however, means that people will have access to cheaper, more versatile devices that can run specialized apps developed specifically for the needs of people with disabilities, said Greg Priest-Dorman, who is advising Google on the Glass project and has been making his own wearable devices since the mid-1980s.

Researchers at Georgia Tech, working with Google, have discovered that a smartphone app that teaches parents to use sign language with their deaf children is used more often when integrating with the headset. Other researchers have used similar technology to help visually-impaired users to crowdsource everything from whether an outfit matches to whether their child's rash needs a doctor's attention. With Glass, they can take a picture of their outfit, for example, then post it to an Internet forum for feedback.

Those small moments of self-reliance may sound trivial to some, but they can mean a lot to someone with disabilities, said Priest-Dorman.

"We don't need them to live -- they're not breathing machines," he said. "But it's also an amazing feeling when you don't need to be dependent on someone."

Alex Blaszczuk, 26, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2011 car accident, said that the little things Google Glass enables her to do are some of the most remarkable -- such as joining in when her friends whip out their cellphones to look up the definition of a word or an actor in a movie.

Blaszczuk said that she does get some strange looks from passers-by, particularly those who can't tell if her Glass headset is related to the other devices she uses as a result of her disability or those who wonder whether or not she's filming them. But that, she joked, comes with its own benefits as well.

"I wore it on the plane, and they were all very careful about answering me," she said. "I think it helps keep the staff in line."

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