An Inclusive Internet of Things: Accessibility in the Palm of Your Hand

By March 7th, 2014

In the physical world, it is nearly impossible to make a fixed object accessible to everyone. In the connected world of the Internet of Things, digital brings us accessibility where the physical can't.

Almost everything that comes into my house that is considered a “gadget” these days is part of the Internet of Things. Everything is connected. My Withings scale. Pebble watches (yes, plural), the FitBit, and even home utility devices like the Nest Thermostat and Nest Protect.

A lot of these devices aren’t accessible to everyone though. Take the Nest thermostat — unless it was already self-voicing, you’d face quite a challenge operating it if you’re blind. Or the Nest Protect — it has built in redundancy for the alarm so that there’s a visual indicator to complement the sounding of the alarm. Of course that means that if you’re Deaf or hard-of-hearing, you’d need to be in visual range to be able to see the alternative. Hardly convenient, and not at all how the real world works.

These kinds of physical devices just aren’t accessible by default to everyone. They almost can’t be, by definition because they’re fixed and not flexible or malleable.

Black Nest protect

What if the key to an Inclusive Internet of Things is about creating well-designed, well-programmed accessible companion applications? That means that people/companies wouldn’t need to invest an incredible amount of dollars and effort into making these connected devices natively accessible. They could instead focus on creating (relatively) inexpensive and accessible companion apps on multiple platforms.

Take the Nest Thermostat or the Nest Protect. They’re already connected via wifi and “paired” with devices. The device settings and status can be accessed directly via the apps. And as long as those apps are accessible and include everyone, we’re making those devices that are part of the Internet of Things accessible too.

  • Have trouble hearing the Nest protect alarm? Set the app for haptic feedback with a custom vibration pattern to signify the type of emergency or the room it is in.
  • Unable to see the small numbers on the Withings scale or your FitBit because you have lost some or maybe all vision? Check in on the app to track your weight and other stats.
  • Difficult to see the Nest thermostat to set the temperature? Set it with the companion app.
  • Trouble controlling the smaller controls and buttons in the app interface? include a skin/theme with larger controls.
  • Live with a son, daughter or even parent that struggles with complex interfaces? Why not have a custom view/screen that allows them to have a simplified interface; maybe just an up and down arrow for the temperature and settings that keep the temperature within a certain range on that device?
  • In a wheelchair and have difficulty adjusting the thermostat because its mounted too high on the wall? Connect and control via the app — maybe even with voice recognition.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways that accessible apps (native or straight up web apps) help create an Inclusive Internet of Things.

Connect something that IS accessible to something that isn’t, and all the accessibility you need is in the palm of your hand. That’s the pure beauty of digital.

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