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Wearables make a world of difference for the differently abled

By Mark Killian / April 18, 2014

Wearables make a world of difference for the differently abled

Any regular Push reader already knows that wearables give athletes a competitive advantage, help Baby Boomers maintain their health and independence, and take some of the burden off of overworked parents, but where wearables really make a world of difference is in the lives of the differently abled. While many technological innovations have made things easier for those with physical and mental impairments, wearable devices have an even greater ability to help everyone reach their full potential.

So long, walking sticks

Voice command and accessibility settings have made smartphones much easier for the visually impaired to operate, but it hasn’t done much in the spatial awareness department. That’s all about to change thanks to some smartphone-compatible wearable devices that aim to augment guide dogs and walking canes.

Lechal Haptic Footwear

You may not realize it while watching what could be the world’s vaguest product demonstration, but an Indian startup called Lechal is currently in the process of giving people with visual impairments more mobility than they’ve ever experienced. This technology is also beneficial for people with 20/20 vision—as the video suggests—but the true inspiration behind the Lechal insoles and shoes was a shared passion to “contribute to the world.”

Krispian Lawrence and Anirudh Sharma are accomplishing this by helping the visually impaired navigate their cities through vibrations in their shoes. Using just two buttons on their smartphone, users can select a location and follow the haptic signals until they reach their final destination. The shoes and insoles also track your step and calorie count in the process, making it an equally effective fitness tracker. And with the Smart-Assist feature, the Lechal app helps you get around unfamiliar cities and territories by identifying nearby landmarks and suggesting points of interest. Although no price or shipment date is currently available on their website, you can place your name on the waiting list by clicking the “preorder” tab on their homepage.

We:eX Navigate Jacket

We:eX (or Wearable Experiments, for long) is bringing fashion and haptic feedback to your upper body with their Navigate jacket. Similar to the Lechal shoes and insoles, the Navigate jacket tells users how to get to their destination though subtle vibrations across their shoulder blades.

Unfortunately, the Navigate jacket isn’t quite “medical grade” just yet, according to cofounder and lead designer Billie Whitehouse, but she assured me that’s something they’re working towards. Hopefully they’ll have it all sorted out by the time Navigate jackets are officially on sale. Until then, you’ll just have to hound them on Twitter, Instagram or the preorder form at the bottom of the Navigate page.

Mobility for all

For some individuals, even lifting a smartphone is an impossible task. Whether they’re limited by paralysis, amputation or old age, it doesn’t change their desire to increase their physical mobility. Fortunately for them, there are a handful of wearable solutions currently under development that promise to increase their range of motion.

Google Glass

With all the media coverage Glass has been receiving since its introduction, it may seem like a stretch to call this a new solution, but previously, only a small percentage of those headlines relate to how Glass can help the physically disabled. The good news is, more developers are are starting to cater to individuals with limited mobility.Take the Tilt Control Glass app, for example.

Tilt Control, developed by Isobar Emerging Technology Lead Mike DiGiovanni, is a Glass application that gives users hands-free control of the wearable device. Using a few head tilts and winks, people with physical impairments can fully operate Glass just like someone with operable hands. Before Tilt Control, physically disabled people were limited to taking photos and carrying out minor voice commands with their Glass. In the video below, DiGiovanni demonstrates how people can use Tilt Control to find a nearby pizza place, get directions and even adjust the volume for a noisy subway ride without ever lifting a finger.

Myo Armband

Another solution for increased movement comes from a Canadian tech startup called Thalmic Labs. Their Myo Armband helps physically limited individuals regain the use of their hands by reading the electrical activity occurring in the user’s forearm. If you roll your fingers on a desk, you’ll see that the motion of your fingers ripples all the way back up to you elbow.

The Myo notices those subtle muscle movements taking place just below your funny bone and uses them to control connected devices like video game consoles, TV remotes and even drones. Although those implications may focus on leisurely entertainment, Thalmic Labs is constantly working on ways to make the Myo control devices like prosthetic limbs, personal computers and other electronics you’d find around your home. Unlike most of the devices we’ve discussed, Myo has officially announced a mid-2014 shipment date and a retail price of $149.

Tongue-Drive Wheelchair

There’s one subset of the wearables movement that characterizes more permanent physical fixtures, commonly referred to as “implantables.” Implantables have huge implications for people in need of daily assistance, like car accident survivor, Jason Disanto. Jason’s incident left him paralyzed from the neck down and bound to a wheelchair with sip-and-puff controls. Growing tired of all the respiratory maneuvering, Jason decided to volunteer for a study at Georgia Tech that promised him easier navigation.

The study centered around tongue-driven wheelchairs that allow paralyzed individuals to get from point A to point B by rubbing their tongue against the roof of their mouth. The key components of this innovative wheelchair are a magnetic stud that gets pierced through the user’s tongue and a retainer-like control board that sits at the top of the user’s mouth. As the stud moves across the control board, the wheelchair follows suit. The engineers behind the technology are also researching other devices that can be controlled via tongue.

Stay social

Not all impairments are physical in nature. Some disabilities, such as Autism, affect the way people navigate the world on a social level. Believe it or not, wearables can improve these conditions as well.


Sension is a company that uses state-of-the-art facial tracking to identify 76 “landmarks” on a user’s face through their digital cameras. The technology was originally invented as a research tool to give developers a better idea of how users engage with their products, but the implications go far beyond marketing research. One interesting area Sension is expanding into is behavioral therapy.

Individuals with social disorders can gain a better understanding of other people’s facial expressions by pairing Sension technology with optical wearables like Google Glass. While the Glass wearer is engaged in conversation, the built-in camera will scan the other person’s face and tell the wearer whether the person they are talking to is happy, sad, mad or a range of other emotions most people take for granted.

Whether they’re helping us read social cues, improving our mobility or enabling us to gain a new perspective on our surroundings, wearable devices provide an excellent opportunity to heighten our senses and improve our day-to-day lives. Although all men and women are created equal, our bodies are not. Wearables are making it possible for all of us to enjoy the same experiences, despite our natural abilities.

For more information on how wearable technology aids the differently abled, view our 2014 SXSW presentation “Wearable Tech: Game Changer for People with Disabilities?,” and follow us on Twitter for updates. And thanks to The Accessible Icon Project for the illustration inspiration.