CES 2013: The blind see, the deaf hear, the mute can be heard

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

We often think of technology as something that makes us more than human. Marshall McLuhan, the freaky philosopher of television and other 20th-century developments, called media the “extensions of man.” The suggestion is that tech accelerates our pace, furthers our reach, amplifies our voice.

It also threatens to turn humankind into a horrifying super-race of cyborgs. The “extended” us, goes the evergreen argument, is, paradoxically, far more distractible/obese/stupid than we were when we were just plain flesh and blood with a stone tool and maybe a cornhusk doll.

That’s frightening. And interesting. Which is why books about the hideous consequences of technology will not stop. They themselves are a technology designed to help us live more meaningfully with machines.

But what about technology designed merely to bring us up to par, to give standard human capabilities to those who lack them? I’m thinking of devices designed to help the mute talk, the deaf hear and the blind see.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which ends Friday, we’ve seen our share of monster TVs and oversize superphones. But we’ve also seen eye-tracking, 3-D headphones and voice technology that can read anything you write in your voice. All this stuff was originally developed for the disabled, and creating it ended up alighting on whole new models of how our senses work.

The eye, according to the latest research, is better thought of as an antenna than a camera. It’s a sensor—liquidy, squishy, hypersensitive. The latest bionic eye, working off this model, allows the blind to see in grayscale in 576 pixels.

Hearing, too, is being rethought. The new 3-D headphones, first made for the hearing-impaired, have necessitated the first headphone patent since in the 1920s. They don’t divide sound into stereo—they wrap it around the head where different frequencies hit the brain from a spectrum of angles.

And finally, the voice. In 2006, the movie critic Roger Ebert lost his voice box to thyroid cancer. But recordings of his voice were subsequently digitized and turned into all possible English sounds. He can now type words and have them said aloud—in his own voice.

Why couldn’t we all do this? The Ebert technology has been extended by some entrepreneurs to handily turn text into speech—anyone’s speech. Soon you’ll be able to have a book or article read to you by almost anyone you choose.

That doesn’t sound so frightening. It sounds exciting—and, in the right situations, potentially miraculous.

More from CES: The smart watch, tablet batteries, and more:

  • Telus in new agreement to buy Canadian startup Mobilicity

    (Reuters) - Telus Corp , one of Canada's dominant telecom providers, has reached a new agreement to acquire struggling wireless startup Mobilicity, in a renewed bid to overcome government objections on competition grounds. Mobilicity said late Thursday that it agreed to be acquired by Telus for C$350 million and that a court-appointed monitor has recommended the transaction. The government last year twice blocked attempts by Telus to buy Mobilicity on grounds the acquisition would create undue concentration of ownership of wireless spectrum. Under a deal blocked in June, Telus would have paid C$380 million.

  • Energy sector to drive Canada first-quarter profit gains

    By John Tilak TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian companies are expected to post solid profit gains when they begin unveiling first-quarter results next week, with robust earnings at energy companies seen overcoming weakness at miners and the materials sector. Energy companies will benefit from a ramp-up in production, improved prices for Canadian crude relative to global benchmarks, and a rally in natural gas prices.

  • For Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, boring is beautiful

    Investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc posted better-than-expected quarterly earnings on Thursday, helped by gains in merger advisory and stock underwriting. The results underscored how businesses viewed as stodgy before the financial crisis are becoming critical drivers of earnings for investment banks now. Goldman's investment management, stock underwriting and merger advisory businesses logged big gains. Morgan Stanley did well in those areas, as well as in wealth management and bond underwriting.

  • Rajaratnam's brother loses bid to dismiss insider trading charges

    By Nate Raymond NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rengan Rajaratnam, the younger brother of imprisoned hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, on Friday lost a bid to dismiss some of the insider trading charges leveled against him last year. U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan ruled that the indictment adequately alleged the essential elements of the crimes charged. A lawyer for Rajaratnam did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined to comment.

  • U.S. delay pushes Canada oil pipeline choke points upstream

    By Nia Williams CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Enbridge Inc is on the brink of breaking through oil pipeline bottlenecks in the U.S. Midwest that have dogged the company for nearly four years, potentially ending a need to ration space at the heart of its network. But here's the rub: Relieving congestion downstream is simply likely to expose choke points further upstream, traders say, as unexpected delays in securing a U.S. permit to expand a major segment of its 5,363km (3,333 mile) Mainline system leaves Canada's heavy crude bottled up for months more. But a parallel project to expand the northwestern leg of the system called Alberta Clipper, which runs from Alberta's oil sands to just south of the U.S. border in Minnesota, has been delayed by as long as a year. As a result, traders and analysts say the bottleneck will simply shift into Canada, leaving cash crude prices under pressure well into 2015.

  • Tech workers seek to use Steve Jobs evidence in upcoming trial on no-hire accords
    Tech workers seek to use Steve Jobs evidence in upcoming trial on no-hire accords

    By Dan Levine SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Four large technology companies should not be allowed to limit evidence about Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs at an upcoming trial over no-hire agreements in Silicon Valley, according to a court document filed late on Thursday by employees suing the firms. Tech workers brought a class action lawsuit against Apple, Google Inc, Intel Inc and Adobe Systems Inc in 2011, alleging they conspired to avoid competing for each other's employees in order to avert a salary war. The case, which is closely watched in Silicon Valley, is largely built on emails among top executives, including Apple's late chief executive Jobs and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

  • Exclusive: GM says recalled cars safe, but has not tested for knee-bump danger
    Exclusive: GM says recalled cars safe, but has not tested for knee-bump danger

    By Julia Edwards and Eric Beech WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General Motors says that cars being recalled because of faulty ignition switches can be driven safely before repairs, based on more than 80 tests, but the automaker has not addressed a problem long known to potentially shut off the engine: a simple bump from a driver's knee. Safety advocates and engineers say the lack of testing for this factor undermines GM's claims that the cars are safe. As early as 2004, GM engineers complained that the ignition switch could be turned off if the key was bumped by a knee. A Texas judge on Thursday allowed the unrepaired cars to stay on the road, over the objection of safety advocates and plaintiffs lawyers who said there is no way, short of repairs, to ensure the ignition switch would not slip out of the run position, turning off the motor and disabling power steering, power brakes and airbags.

  • The robot is ready - so when will deep sea mining start?
    The robot is ready - so when will deep sea mining start?

    By Stephen Eisenhammer and Silvia Antonioli NEWCASTLE, England/LONDON (Reuters) - The world's first deep sea mining robot sits idle on a British factory floor, waiting to claw up high grade copper and gold from the seabed off Papua New Guinea (PNG) - when a wrangle over terms is solved. The world waits for the judgment of a United Nations agency based in Jamaica. The marine area beyond national jurisdiction is 50 percent of the Ocean," said Nii Odunton, secretary general of the U.N.'s International Seabed Authority (ISA). "I believe the grades look good, the abundance looks good, I believe that money will be made," Odunton said from the ISA offices in Kingston.

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