The Spark

Special needs tech: The next wave of mobile?


The next wave of mobile technology may lie in the hands of special needs users.

The boom in tablets and smartphones has only recently begun catering to the special needs population, as well as those who look after them. In many cases, these solutions are being pioneered by parents, or disabled users themselves.

"The mobile revolution has largely left special needs users out in the cold," Amish Shah, managing partner of venture capital firm SierraMaya360, told CNBC recently. "We see a real market need for these types of products and we think this space is prime for disruption by innovators."

With more than a million apps available for download and with smartphones essentially acting like computers, some analysts are expecting more businesses to create apps to serve the 15 percent of the world's population, estimated as more than a billion people, who have some form of a disability.

"Apps are an invaluable tool for people with communication disabilities — specifically speech, language and hearing disabilities," says Diane Paul, director at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. She said they can help improve spoken and written communication, and reduce the stigma of a disability.

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Brad Dicianno, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, tells CNBC that people with disabilities are "a rather tech-savvy group" and can use technology to a high extent if it is made accessible to those with disabilities.

One app on the market now is Five, a messaging tool for the deaf and hearing impaired that allows users to send personalized hand signals and sign language to each other. Mateusz Mach of Poland, the 18-year-old CEO of Five, calls the app the "first computer sign language messenger for the deaf." Five, however, wasn't born out of necessity — it was created by accident.

Mach, a lover of rap music, was inspired by popular hand signals that artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar throw up in concerts. He originally wanted to create an app to send those gestures to friends. That idea did not catch on, but instead Mach found the app appealed to the hearing impaired.

"Their natural internal voice is reflected better in sign, and texting can feel like a foreign language," Mach told CNBC. "Currently the proper messenger doesn't exist. By using our app the deaf can communicate in almost the entire alphabet of American Sign Language."

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Since its release in mid-2015, Mach says around 10,000 people are using Five, and he hopes that number will continue to grow later this year when the next version is released.

'Easy to access'

Scott Kessler, an Internet industry analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence, says among the most important things in developing a new app — it must be easy to access, easy to use and encourage user engagement. "You really need to prove the business potential and that starts with a user base and a level of consistent engagement," he said.

But with niche apps, like Five, some analysts wonder about user growth, and question how many people are in the position to use these apps right now whose needs aren't being met otherwise. Other Silicon Valley insiders are concerned that, while well-intentioned, special needs apps may face challenges when it comes to raising venture capital funding, as these apps do not appeal to the greater population.

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SierraMaya360's Shah disagreed, saying there is a great market right now for solutions of this kind. He invests in the sign language technology space with MotionSavvy, a two-way communication tool for the deaf using gesture and speech technology, that will be available later this year.

"From an investor standpoint, what makes this field promising is that it serves a real need among consumers that is not being addressed by large, established players in the market," Shah said. "It's an area ripe for innovation and new players."