Page last updated at 18:25 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Stevie Wonder interview

Watch the full 15 minute version of the interview

By Richard Taylor
Editor, Click

Modern tech seduces us with its sheer good looks, draws us in with its desirability - it is all about a new, improved user-experience.

But have you ever tried using a touch-screen when you are not actually looking at it? Take away visual contact, and that vaunted user interface becomes next-to-useless.

The paradox is that whilst particular adaptive technologies, like screen readers, have become so indispensible to the visually impaired, so much day-to-day technology itself is still effectively off-limits.

Earlier this month we were at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There were huge halls filled with every conceivable gadget known to man.

It would take very little to make it accessible to everyone. So I encourage all the manufacturers to do that.
Stevie Wonder on new technology

In a less prominent but no less significant corner, the case was being made to make our tech kit accessible to everyone, or "vision-free" to use the jargon. Just a bit more thought in the design process can make all the difference.

For example, even though many modern microwaves sport flat panels, why not provide raised buttons so a blind person can easily navigate their way around using points of reference?

Other household appliances can be easily made accessible as well. You can now get thermostats with elementary speech synthesis, as well as some versions of the world's favourite music player iPod.

And it's through music that this cause has found its most high-profile proponent. With a career spanning half a century and 25 Grammys under his belt, Stevie Wonder is one of the most influential musicians of modern times, as well as being the most famous blind person alive.

When he agreed to an interview, I found him in high spirits.

The interview

Stevie Wonder interview - short version

Richard: I am going to start by asking you about your experiences as a blind man. Has technology really helped in terms of the challenges that it helps you to overcome?

Stevie: The reality is, definitely between 20 years ago and now things are far better, I think; just as to having access to information, being able to read books, electronic braille, and digital information that's accessible has made things far easier for a blind person.

I remember the beginnings of the Kurzweil reading machine. I was one of the first to meet Ray Kurzweil and purchase the reading machine in Boston. To think that the machine was at least two and a half large suitcases at the time, and now you have a camera and it takes a picture and you have sound.

To be able to read information, to read books, magazines, papers, whatever you might need to read. Technology really advanced and made things better.

Richard: Are you a gadget man and what kind of gadgets do you use if you are?

You have a growing number of people, aging people, that will need things to be more accessible, as well as the hundreds of thousands of blind people in the world. So just let's keep it real
Stevie Wonder

Stevie: Man, anything that I can work I'm going to use. Jimmy Hendrix's studio was a great experience and it was the first time that I was able to go around and touch some of Hendrix's guitars, mess with the board a little bit, and that was the first place where we recorded Superstition and things like that.

Richard: So in terms of present day stuff, you must have iPods and things like that.

Stevie: I got the iPod and obviously the reading machine. Even some things that are not supposed to be accessible, I kind of found my way in and out...

If they are not the units that go around and around; if they stop at a certain point, it is a matter of counting the clicks to know where you are.

An example is the blackberry phone. I understand they are going to make it more accessible, being more accessible is always a plus.

I think for the various companies that are working with this technology and making it exciting and accessible for people who can see, it would take very little to make it accessible to everyone. So I encourage all the manufacturers to do that.

Touch screens

Richard: I guess part of the problem is that the industry seems to be moving almost away from making some products more accessible; for example touch screens are all the rage right now.

Stevie: I think someone was going to show us something that could be attached to either a phone making it tactile so that a blind person would be able to know where he or she was on that phone.

That is great, but I think you've got to take it a step further and make it possible for one to purchase an accessible, tactile unit to put on top of that touch phone or whatever you'll be using. It is only fair, isn't it? It is only right.

Richard: It is, but the problem is some of the manufacturers are going to say actually it doesn't really make sense to make some of these products more accessible because it costs them a lot more.

In terms of design and the market for accessible products, the kind of people that may be using, may be five or 10 percent more and we might lose some of our other customers. So there is that kind of market economics that they do and they say, maybe it is not worth it?

Stevie: That is a weak position. I think now, realistically when you can do the things that you need to do, to make it accessible and make it possible, you should just include that in the overall picture.

When you have a growing number of people, aging people, that will need things to be more accessible, as well as the hundreds of thousands of blind people in the world. So just let's keep it real.

Richard: There have been some amazing stories of some people who've managed to recover their sight through technological advances. I know that you have looked into a couple of these treatments, are you hopeful that one day there could be some treatment that offers something for you?

Stevie: Yeah. I am all for stem cell research. I am all for anything that is going to better equip a person who is physically challenged in any way, to have an opportunity to be able to do what they are able to do.

There was a doctor that I did see and I was able to do some testing. The thing with my condition, it is very possible that I might not be eligible for this chip.

But obviously, the goal for talking about this with various people was not necessarily for me to see, [but] by me getting the information people will hear about it and the possibilities. It is not that important for me, but for anyone who might be eligible.

Rich: I want to turn to your broader relationship with technology. You have always been a bit of a technological pioneer, certainly musically, you have always used it in a big way.

These days technology is used so widely in music with sequences and samplers. Do you think there is a danger that technology can rob music of some of its soul?

Stevie: This is funny because recently I did a song called, oh my god I forgot the name of my song!

It is a song that I did for the inaugural CD called All About The Love Again. Part of it in my voice, kind of like that voice tuner thing.

So the thing is, in my mind, you create the image of this voice, this sort of futuristic sounding voice. I think we had fun with it. You can tell it is me but it does sound a little different and that is what I wanted.

Rich: Stevie Wonder, it has been a pleasure to meet you, thank you.

Stevie: My joy.

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