Figure designed by Sarfraz et al. (2017) and worn

Figure 1: The
prototype of the multimodal assistive device designed by Sarfraz et al. (2017)
and worn by blind individuals.

This
prototype is an example of the functional design goals this report proposed as
it satisfies the criteria of providing the essential visual information that
blind individuals require during social interaction. This is evident as the
technology offers features for three of the unmet needs of blind individuals
identified by Krishna et al. (2008). Specifically, knowing the identity (‘ID’
function) and location (both functions) of individuals in the room and knowing
where a person is directing their attention (‘GAZE’ function). However, this
design could have incorporated more features to serve more needs (Krishna et
al., 2008). For example, as there are already algorithms developed which
identify facial expressions (Panchanathan, Chakraborty & McDaniel, 2016),
such algorithms could also be integrated into the computer element of the
design and then transferred to the user via audio feedback. Such visual
information will enable users to infer emotional states of individuals, which
is vital for improved social interactions (Horstmann, 2003). However, although is it possible with current
computer vision research to incorporate such features to assist additional
needs (Krishna et al., 2008), designers must be aware of the user’s
capabilities, not just their disabilities. For example, blind individuals have
been found to be as accurate as sighted individuals in detecting specific
emotions (i.e., happiness or sadness) from vocalisations (Gamond, Vecchi, Ferrari, Merabet
& Cattaneo, 2017).
Therefore, as emotional states can be inferred from other sensory
information, visual information is not necessarily required to develop the
vital emotional recognition skills in improved social interaction. Thus, by
adding a facial expression feature to Sarfraz et al.’s (2017) design, with
additional audio feedback, it could interfere with the user normal abilities to
process audio information (i.e., the valance of vocalisations). Therefore,
designers of technology to support social interactions must incorporate
features that provide the
essential visual information users require, but must be cautious as too much
information could have a detrimental effect on their current
capabilities.

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Furthermore, testing the prototype on blind
individuals in a normal interaction scenario determines whether the device
stands up to the cognitive demand and usability criteria proposed. Sarfraz et
al. (2017) tested their device on 12 blind individuals while they took part in
group discussions with sighted individuals. Blind individuals conversed with
the group not using the device, using the device with only audio feedback and
then using the device audio-haptic feedback. Cognitive load and usability were
assessed via specific questionnaires after each condition. Results showed that
cognitive load was significantly greater when users received audio-haptic
feedback than when then received just audio feedback. Haptic feedback possibly
increased the cognitive load due to users’ having to remember, almost like a
new language, what the vibrations meant (Adebiyi et al., 2017). Specifically,
the magnitude of vibration and location of vibration on the belt infers the
distance and location of an individual respectfully in relation to the user.
Therefore, a recommendation for designers is to just include one feedback
modality (i.e., audio) as an additional feedback modality (i.e., haptic) is
introducing an extra level of mental processing, while only providing
complementary information.

 However,
it might not be fitting for future designs of such assistive technology to only
have the option of audio feedback. Audio feedback can potentially affect a
users’ ability to process other audio information in the environment (Velázquez, 2010). This is
observed in the Sarfraz et al.’s (2017) evaluation of the multimodal prototype
whereby two users mentioned that the number of people looking at them was
announced at the same time a question was directed at them and in turn, they
missed part of the question. In this situation perhaps haptic feedback would
have been more beneficial for the users. Thus, as receiving both audio and
haptic feedback significantly increases cognitive load but there are situations
where specific feedback is more suitable, a recommendation for future designs
is that they incorporate a feature whereby users can choose which feedback they
receive, based on their current situation.

Blind individuals found both device variants
(just audio feedback and audio-haptic feedback) easy to use, meeting the
usability design criterion. In addition, all blind individuals said that using
the device enhanced their participation in the discussion in comparison to not
using the device, with eight favouring audio-haptic feedback and four favouring
just audio feedback. Therefore, although audio-haptic feedback had a
significantly greater cognitive load than just audio feedback, preference and
usability scores suggest that participants are able to manage the extra mental
processing. Furthermore, these scores have strong external validity, as the
study involved a normal social interaction. Therefore, future designs
incorporating the recommended feature of feedback choice also means users have
the option of choosing their preferred feedback modality, whether one or both.
In turn, technology would be able to support individual differences in
environment and feedback preference.

 

Furthermore, it appears as if the prototype
meets the aesthetic design criterion. It is portable and comprises of wireless
components whereby the belt can be subtly worn under clothes. However, most of
the blind individuals in Sarfraz et al.’s (2017) evaluation study felt that the
device was too big and that the straps for the camera were too noticeable.
Therefore, future designers should focus on reducing the amount of hardware,
for example, incorporating vibrators into the camera straps would mean the belt
is not required. Alternatively, designers could focus on trying to
aesthetically improve the hardware itself. This is a current trend in
prosthetic design, whereby highly stylised prosthetic limbs are created as a
representation of the wearer’s personality (Profita, 2016). However, such designs, although
aesthetically pleasing, will not subtle and will draw the undesired attention
that has been found to create social barriers and result in abandonment of
blind individuals using assistive devices (Pape et al., 2002). 
Consequently, a recommendation for technology aiming to support social
interaction would be to focus on restructuring the hardware design to make it
less noticeable and bulky.

 

Furthermore, although research into the users’
perception of the device is important for the functional and usability design
criteria, crucially it is the perception of the sighted individuals that should
be investigated to determine whether such technology is socially acceptable.
For example, the sighted individuals in Sarfraz et al.’s (2017) study could
have felt uncomfortable having a camera pointing at them and thus felt uneasy
communicating with the user. Therefore, future research should evaluate the sighted
individuals’ perceptions of the prototype to be able to determine aspects of
design that may or may not be considered socially unacceptable, fuelling
further design recommendations.

Finally, for any of the design recommendations
from this report to be able to overcome the challenges blind individuals face
in social interaction, misperceptions and social stigma associated with
assistive devices must be dealt with. Undesired attention towards assistive
devices occurs as a result of sighted individuals being unaccustomed with them
(Shinohara & Wobbock, 2011). As a result, assumptions are inaccurately
drawn, namely that technology removes one’s disability and without it, disabled
individuals are completely unable (Shinohara, 2012). It is not the users’ role to deal with these
misperceptions by explaining the device, it is society’s role to place more
importance on trying to understand it. 
Furthermore, as mentioned above, assistive device users are aware that
the technology is a symbol of difference and highlights disability (Shinohara & Wobbrock, 2011).
Such social stigmas are extremely discrediting for the blind population
(Goffman, 1963). Therefore, although aesthetic design considerations, for
instance trying to make the device more subtle, is a step in the right
direction to remove social barriers, ultimately it is the responsibility of
society to become more familiar with assistive technology and change people’s
attitudes towards them.

To conclude, this report has proposed important
design criteria must be met for assistive technology to overcome the challenges
blind individuals face in social interaction. The report firstly identified the
vital design criteria; incorporating functional features with the users’ needs
at the forefront of design, being easy to use, not too cognitively demanding
that it effects blind individuals’ normal capabilities and that it is subtle
and socially acceptable. The report then evaluated how a current prototype
device that has been designed to support social interaction stands up to the
proposed criteria. Although it is aligned with some of the criteria, the
evaluation has enabled further design recommendations for other such social
interaction devices. Specifically, being cautious of not providing too much
visual information to a user, incorporating a feedback choice feature, for both
user’s preference, as well as the situation they are in and making the design
more subtle by restructuring the hardware. Furthermore, understanding sighted
individuals’ perceptions of the prototype are vital to creating further design
recommendations. Ultimately, with the appropriate design, as well as society
being more familiar with assistive devices, assistive technology to support
social interaction should be brought more closely to the market to help the
blind population in what is such an essential part of humanity.

 

 

 

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