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New Technology for Visually Impaired Could Expand Workforce

April 6, 2018
Source: Economics 21

Advances in virtual and augmented reality technology could help millions of disabled Americans improve their standard of living and even enter the workforce in greater numbers.

If these technologies prove feasible in the ever-changing workspace, many could be vaulted into greater financial independence, potentially saving billions in federal spending. Individuals who are blind or suffering from gradual loss of sight will be some of the first to gain from technological advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), between 7 million and 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired. About 99 percent of visually disabled Americans lost their sight over time from macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other diseases. Emerging VR and AR technology is suited to help improve sight and mobility for this population.

The VR industry is expected to grow from $2 billion in 2016 to $27 billion by 2022, according to a report by Zion Market Research. Other forecasts say it will reach $108 billion by then. Augmented reality products and applications will be an important driver of this growth. This rapid growth is a sign that new VR and AR products will become cheaper over time.

But what exactly are VR and AR? Examples of VR are products such as the Oculus Rift headset where total immersion, or simulated immersion, in a digital world is the goal. The headset completely blocks out users’ peripheral vision of the real world, and the screen of the smartphone is used to create the virtual reality. Examples of AR are apps such as Pokémon Go, in which users peer through their smartphones and see digital representations of Pikachu standing on their driveways. Thankfully, VR and AR are not limited to the world of entertainment.

People who are experiencing significant loss of vision and who are worried about no longer being able work can now purchase AR glasses that allow them to safely navigate the world. AR glasses, such as those made by Oxsight, work by connecting to software that runs on a smartphone. The software helps the brain pick up on visual cues by emphasizing colors or enhancing blurry objects (depending on the illness), and then overlaying that information on the lenses of the glasses. The glasses were made possible by investments from Google, venture capitalists, and various endowments.

It is possible that AR glasses will allow many who have experienced some loss of vision to be able to drive again. The spread of self-driving cars will also provide these individuals with more options.

But what about people who have been visually impaired for so long that their brain is not as amenable to assistance? As neurologist Oliver Sacks has extensively described, these individuals’ brains cannot link a visual image with reality without extensive training. VR simulations allow functionally blind people to practice going through a space, such as a train station or office, before ever stepping foot there. This technology has been available for two decades, but the simulations’ effectiveness is improving with experimentation.

Current iterations of this technology have the user go through the space with a joystick while listening to sound recordings of the space. The integration of brand-new technology that allows users to “touch” virtual reality, to walk through VR on omni-directional treadmills, and to hear binaural, interactive soundscapes will give users more confidence. The ability to experience a more realistic run of trial-and-error, while avoiding safety risks, could improve independence and mobility for the blind.

Innovations such as these could help continue the recent trend of increased labor force participation among disabled Americans. For two decades the number of Americans aged 25-54 who were not in the labor force because of a disability or illness had been steadily increasing, from below five million in 1995 to more than seven million in 2015. That figure declined to 6.7 million in 2018.

Most of the reduction came from those aged 40 and above who were re-entering the labor force. New AR technology, such as the Oxsight glasses, could strengthen this trend because diseases such as glaucoma become more common after turning 40. Of the 2 million Americans aged 16-64 who reported being blind or having the most difficulty seeing, 56% were not in the labor force. The unemployment rate for those in this group that were in the labor force is 13 percent, so new VR and AR technologies can help fill large gaps in employability.

The potential for growth is certainly good news for visually-impaired Americans, and for those employed in the VR and AR industries. But this could also soften the blow of the entitlement crisis to come. Federal spending is clearly unsustainable, and helping more people transition from government assistance programs to the workforce will ease pressure on budget constraints.

While it is not clear how many visually impaired people may wish to enter the workforce now that new technologies are coming to the market, the existence of more options may keep people working longer.

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