Devices that work for everyone #BlackHistoryMonth ^JB

by Jo Brodie, Queen Mary University of London

In 2009 Desi Cryer, who is Black, shared a light-hearted video with a serious message. He’d bought a new computer with a face tracking camera… which didn’t track his face, at all. It did track his White colleague Wanda’s face though. In the video (below) he asked her to go in front of the camera and move from side to side and the camera obediently tracked her face – wherever she moved the camera followed. When Desi moved back in front of the camera it stopped again. He wondered if the computer might be racist…

The computer recognises Desi’s colleague Wanda, but not him

Another video (below), this time from 2017, showed a dark-skinned man failing to get a soap to dispenser to give him some soap. Nothing happened when he put his hand underneath the sensor but as soon as his lighter-skinned friend put his hand under it – out popped some soap! The only way the first man could get any soap dispensed was to put a white tissue on his hand first. He wondered if the soap dispenser might be racist…

The soap dispenser only dispenses soap if it ‘see’s a white hand

What’s going on?

Probably no-one set out to maliciously design a racist device but designers might need to check that their products work with a range of different people before putting them on the market. This can save the company embarrassment as well as creating something that more people want to buy. 

Sensors working overtime

Both devices use a sensor that is activated (or in these cases isn’t) by a signal. Soap dispensers shine a beam of light which bounces off a hand placed below it and some of that light is reflected back. Paler skin reflects more light (and so triggers the sensor) than darker skin. Next to the light is a sensor which responds to the reflected light – but if the device was only tested on White people then the sensor wasn’t adjusted for the full range of skin tones and so won’t respond appropriately. Similarly cameras have historically been designed for White skin tones meaning darker tones are not picked up as well.

In the days when film was developed the technicians would use what was called a ‘Shirley’ card (a photograph of a White woman with brown hair) to colour-correct the photographs. The colour balancing meant darker-skinned tones didn’t come out as well, however the problem was only really addressed because chocolate manufacturers and furniture companies complained that the different chocolates and dark brown wood products weren’t showing up correctly!

The Racial Bias Built Into Photography (25 April 2019) The New York Times

Things can be improved!

It’s a good idea, when designing something that will be used by lots of different people, to make sure that it will work correctly with everyone. Having a diverse design team and, importantly, making sure that everyone feels empowered to contribute is a good way to start. Another is to test the design with different target audiences early in the design process so that changes can be made before it’s too late. How a company responds to feedback when they’ve made an oversight is also important. In the case of the computer company they acknowledged the problem and went to work to improve the camera’s sensitivity. 

A problem with pulse oximeters

A pulse oximeter on the finger of a Black person's hand
Pulse oximeter image by Mufid Majnun from Pixabay
The oximeter is shown on the index finger of a Black person’s right hand.

During the coronavirus pandemic many people bought a ‘pulse oximeter’, a device which clips painlessly onto a finger and measures how much oxygen is circulating in your blood (and your pulse). If the oxygen reading became too low people were advised to go to hospital. Oximeters shine red and infrared light from the top clip through the finger and the light is absorbed diferently depending on how much oxygen is present in the blood. A sensor on the lower clip measures how much light has got through but the reading can be affected by skin colour (and coloured nail polish). People were concerned that pulse oximeters would overestimate the oxygen reading for someone with darker skin (that is, tell them they had more oxygen than they actually had) and that the devices might not detect a drop in oxygen quickly enough to warn them.

In response the UK Government announced in August 2022 that it would investigate this bias in a range of medical devices to ensure that future devices work effectively for everyone.

Further reading

See also Is your healthcare algorithm racist? (from issue 27 of the CS4FN magazine).


See more in ‘Celebrating Diversity in Computing

We have free posters to download and some information about the different people who’ve helped make modern computing what it is today.

Screenshot showing the vibrant blue posters on the left and the muted sepia-toned posters on the right

Or click here: Celebrating diversity in computing


This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

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