Will Butler is a writer, producer and podcast host from California. Legally blind since age of 19, Will has written and produced numerous stories about adjusting to vision loss. Will joined Be My Eyes as its VP in 2019 after four years at Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. You can listen to Will’s interviews with leaders from the world of blindness and accessibility on The Be My Eyes podcast and the 13 Letters podcast.
When I was pronounced legally blind in 2009, I didn’t know one other person who called themselves blind – least of all “low vision” or “visually impaired.” Today, I manage the largest blindness community in the world, Be My Eyes, a support platform where more than 4 million people and companies use live video to support users in almost 200 languages. And though the growth of our collective community is a crucial step making our lives better, it’s just one piece of what makes today, as I’ve heard many others say, “a great time to be blind.”
That’s because in the past 10 years, “sight tech” has taken off. What we might have once called “assistive” or “special needs” technology has gone mainstream – and the technology developed by and for people with disabilities is now used by you, your kids, your grandparents – regardless of whether you identify as having a disability or not.
Sight tech – or more broadly, eyes-free tech – now touches every part of our lives and the devices that we depend on. And it’s not just blind and visually impaired people who are benefitting. It’s everyone. That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting the first ever Sight Tech Global conference on December 2 and 3, to sit down with the tech world’s most important figures in sight tech and talk about the past, present and future of how designing for the blind informs and affects all of our lives. Registration is free; sign up today.
What is Sight Tech?
Inventions to help the blind “see” have quietly been spurring innovation for decades. Often, idealistic inventors create with a charitable mindset – to help the needy or return something lost – but the real technological advances in sight tech have done a lot more than simply suggest a cure for human disability. They’ve created new abilities for everyone, and opened new doors to unpredictable innovation: The 12-inch record, the computer keyboard, and the text recognition software that laid the foundation for the modern database were all brought to market, initially, for blind consumers.
There was a time when a personal assistant, someone to read to you or a car at your door, were once thought of as “special” – but no longer. Today, every device shipped by Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft includes these capabilities and more, not as a bonus but as a necessity to compete in today’s competitive hardware and software markets. So whether you use your phone in dark mode or talk to Siri while you’re driving, you too use “sight tech” that was invented initially for the visually impaired.
Over and over again, designing for blind consumers has shown an ROI far beyond helping the needy. Audiobooks, which were heavily resisted by publishers when first developed for blind readers in 1934, now are the book industry’s only growing business. Likewise, coding your website for a blind person’s screen reader might seem like extra work until you realize it optimizes your SEO and makes your website more usable to about a billion other non-standard device users, as well. The world of sight tech is absolutely full of these types of happy surprises; unexpected synchronicities and wide applicability that started with designing for a seemingly small group.
Founded by former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond earlier this year, Sight Tech Global provides a new venue for those who are passionate about AI, blind tech, digital inclusion and equal access for all to gather and hear from the accessibility community’s greatest thinkers and doers. Best of all, this free, all-virtual conference is a benefit for the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired which has been helping individuals with blindness or low vision for the past 75 years.
Here’s a little preview of what we’ll be unveiling, cheering, arguing and dreaming about at Sight Tech Global. I hope you’ll join us! Here is a link to the full agenda.
Achieving perfect mobility
For most, the self-driving car is a long-promised luxury. For those of us who can’t get a driver’s license, it’s the key to an unprecedented level of independence. Researchers at Waymo are intent on making sure that, when the first self-driving taxi arrives on your doorstep, it shouldn’t matter whether you can see or not: You should be able to hop in and take a ride.
Similarly, maps are much more than just a handy tool for those of us with visual impairments. In many cases, they’re the only option for finding your bearings – the difference between independence and codependence. Blind and sighted inventors alike have been pushing for better, more exact navigational tools for decades, and today the team at GOOD Maps has harnessed the power of lidar, data and and faster-than-ever processors to make sure that someone with no sight can get themselves within arm’s reach of exactly what they’re looking for.
Join product managers from Waymo, Waymap, Goodmaps and more to hear about the future of getting from point A to point B.
The next talking computer
Since the late 1980s, companies like Freedom Scientific and Humanware have laid the foundation for accessible computing, writing software and building devices that can convert visual information into sound or touch. Those devices were operating computers, rendering digital Braille and delivering audio books to readers long before there was an app for that.
Today, mainstream tech giants Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are creating screen readers and assistive devices of their own, not to mention the thousands of third-party apps for navigation, sensory optimization, recognizing text and images and more. And with this new functionality native to operating systems, established assistive tech companies are evolving, too.
We’ll take a deep dive into what’s next for the “screen reader” – and how new tech from AI to AR, and headgear to haptics are shaking up interfaces and reshaping paradigms across our industry.
Over the course of two days, we’ll be hearing from the accessibility leaders at Apple, Microsoft, Google, Vispero, Humanware, Amazon and more.
Tech that doesn’t discriminate
Even the greatest new tech creates great new problems. And as AI swoops in to save the day, allowing blind and visually impaired people to overcome barriers in their work and social lives, AI can also introduce new biases that we never expected. When training our systems to recognize, categorize and interact with real people, how do we account for disability and a diverse range of functional needs? How do we make machines that don’t inherit our own cultural prejudices?
We’ll also be joined by some of the blindness and disability community’s greatest advocates: people like Lainey Feingold, Haben Girma and George Kerscher, who will take a hard look at access to information as a civil right, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go in the era of AI.
Sight Tech Global is December 2-3 – all-virtual and 100% free. All sponsorship proceeds benefit the Vista Center for the Blind. It’s not too late to sponsor – learn more here.