The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  June 2005

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Consumer Electronics: Crisis at
the Big Box Store, Part 3

by Brad Hodges

Brad Hodges
Brad Hodges

From the Editor: In the December 2004 and February 2005 issues of the Braille Monitor Brad Hodges, technology accessibility manager at the Jernigan Institute's International Braille and Technology Center, reported on the accessibility of some common household appliances. In the following report he evaluates the accessibility and operation procedures of some popular consumer electronic devices, including DVD players, digital video recorders, MP3 players, satellite systems, online television guides, microwave ovens, and thermostats. This is what he says:

Addressing accessibility and consumer electronics is rather like the proverbial task of eating an elephant. Exactly where to start, however, is only the first question. Not until we delve into this substantial task can we really find out whether we can eat that elephant. Being Federationists, though, we will consider it a matter of collective resolve that no matter how big the meal, or how long it takes to complete, we will not leave the table until the elephant is gone.

Walking into your neighborhood big box store or electronics emporium can evoke many feelings and reactions. Some are positive, such as the excitement of bringing a new piece of electronics into the home or the opportunity of enjoying a new kind of entertainment with friends or family. Other reactions may be less positive, such as the concern that the desired item may not be useable by nonvisual techniques or the chance that the salesperson will be inept and unable, perhaps even unwilling, to answer your questions. With this complex set of thoughts and possible experiences in mind, you step through the sliding door and enter the world of consumer electronics retailing as it is most often in the United States.

Like the supermarket the mass merchandise retail store is designed with consumers and their pocketbooks in mind. Nearly all aspects of the experience are carefully orchestrated. The organization of departments, the sounds of equipment demanding your attention, and even the lighting and colors used for displays and store fixtures are designed to influence your purchase.

Furthermore, specialized and knowledgeable sales staff, who in the distant past were the denizens of the retail world, have been replaced with salespeople who move about the store directing the average customer to self-service information. In short, plan on fending for yourself to navigate the often-bewildering claims and specifications of competing models of technology. While you may find helpful and competent sales associates, do not assume that one will be available every time you go to the store.

In the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, we receive many questions about electronics from members across the nation. These calls and questions fall into several predictable categories. Here are some of those general questions and our necessarily general answers as of mid-winter 2005. 

DVD Players

Q: Is there a DVD player I can use?

A: The digital video disc (DVD) has surpassed the videocassette as the most popular form of movie distribution for individual use in the home. The DVD player, like the DVD itself, must meet certain technical standards. For this reason some behaviors of DVD players that pose problems to those who use them nonvisually are not the fault of the player or its manufacturer but are inherent in the DVD standard itself.

When a DVD is placed in a player and the start button is pressed, a predictable sequence of events follows. This sequence will be the same on a $39 generic machine from Wal-Mart and its $2500 cousin from the high-end specialist. The reason for this is that the information that appears on the TV screen is coded on the disc itself--not in the player.

After the disc begins to spin, a mandatory warning often referred to as the FBI warning appears. By federal law the player must show this screen for at least sixty seconds. The FBI warning notifies the viewer that copying and redistributing the material is illegal. To prevent the viewer from skipping over this warning, the player must lock out control functions while the notice, which is always silent, is visible. An alternative technique is to listen carefully for the high-pitch on-and-off sounds from the DVD player, which indicate that the disc is turning.

Once the notice has concluded, the disc moves to the next section of material. This is usually trailers for upcoming attractions, which the studio would like to sell to you. In some instances you may not be able to jump ahead through these trailers because the DVD producer has disabled the fast forward control.

Once the trailers have played, the menu appears. Unlike the FBI warning the menu is accompanied by music or sounds. Once the menu is visible, selections from the menu can be made. Most often the remote control is used to scroll through the choices, which are arranged vertically. Pressing the play button will move the player to the appropriate location on the disc and begin playing the content chosen from the menu.

While it is not a standard, the overwhelming practice is for the main feature to be the top item on the menu, which is chosen by pressing play. To determine whether or not you are on the menu screen, simply allow the sound to play for several seconds. Usually the song or sound sequence will repeat. This is a sure sign that the menu is available and that the system is ready for you to make a selection.

Here the similarity of players becomes less apparent. Navigating the disc and changing the settings of the player can pose a significant challenge. Let us divide the settings into two groups: those that are strictly visual and all other settings.

Controlling settings that affect the picture only, such as color temperature, aspect ratio, and 3-to-2 pull down, cannot be verified nonvisually in our experience. The performance of all other controls is influenced by the player's design. Many players have few if any front panel controls. This means that, for these units, only the remote control provides full access to the control interface. If you have this kind of machine or are considering the purchase of a player of this kind, it is critical that the remote be responsive and predictable. Many remotes, even those of relatively expensive players, can only be described as unusable. We have all suffered with a bewildering array of small, identical buttons poorly differentiated from one another according to function and shape. An alternative technique for coping with existing poorly designed remote controls is to purchase a replacement control. A talking remote, which will announce the buttons as they are pressed, is available from the Materials Center at the National Center for the Blind.

Some DVD players have all or most control functions represented by buttons and controls on the front or top of the player itself. These often provide a much better interface than the remote-only strategy. If you are shopping for a player, try it out in the store, learn the purpose of the controls, and navigate the disc. Change the audio settings as you might at home, adjusting for nighttime listening for example. Note whether the controls on the player have a solid feel and whether you are confident that you have pressed the control you intended. Remember that it may be necessary to enter menus and navigate with a cursor or joystick, which will not provide audible feedback.

By extension the same principles that apply to machine-mounted controls apply to the remote control. Most people perform most functions of the player with the remote from the viewing position. Take the time to orient yourself to the remote and perform the tasks you believe you will perform at home.

Common control functions on a DVD player include an up-down and forward-backward set of arrows or a joystick. This is the player's primary method for controlling menus and playback navigation. A keypad is used to move to specific locations on a disc or to make specific menu selections. Additional controls for audio settings may be included, while some machines rely on an on-screen menu for these choices. You will want a player with as many functions represented by actual controls as is possible.

Home Theater Systems

Q: Is there an accessible home theater system?

A: Home theater systems have all but replaced the typical stereos used in the recent past. Because the DVD can store and play vast amounts of information, the experience of your high-tech neighborhood multiplex can be recreated in the home.

Often referred to as a 5.1 channel system, the home theater system is comprised of a receiver or processor, two front or main speakers, a center channel speaker, two rear speakers, and a subwoofer. Some systems, also known as a theater in a box, package all the necessary speakers, player, amplifiers, and wiring in a single box. A colorful poster guides the setup, which consists primarily of placing the speakers around the room in the correct order and connecting color-coded speaker wire to each. More elaborate home theater systems have separate components, which may include a receiver, a DVD player, and a satellite receiver or cable set-top box.

Regardless of the sophistication of the system, you can count on visually based controls and setup procedures. Here are some points to consider when purchasing home theater equipment.

Can you control the basic functions conveniently and consistently? Turning the system on and off, selecting the input or program source, and adjusting the volume and other primary control functions should be simple and should not require use of a menu.

Can you predict the complexity of the system? Sometimes you will want or need to manipulate more advanced features of the system. How is this accomplished? Can you go to a menu and make selections, then exit the menu and know exactly where you are? Before you purchase any equipment, all of these questions should be considered. Ideally the equipment should have a reset or clear button, which will reset all values to the default setting.

If the system includes an integrated radio and/or DVD player, are its controls as good as those on separate components? Although the prospect of evaluating two or three pieces of equipment makes all-in-one systems attractive, be sure that usability and access to functions are not compromised.

MP3 Players

Q: Is there an accessible MP3 player?

A: MP3 is the buzzword in portable electronics today. Short for the Motion Picture Experimental Group level three, the MP3 format and its counterpart Windows Media Audio (WMA) allow the storage and playback of music and spoken-word recordings on extremely small devices.

It is helpful to separate MP3 players into two categories: memory-chip-based players and hard-drive-based players. A memory chip device is typically about the size of a pack of gum. MP3 files of music or spoken-word recordings are transferred from a PC to the player, where they are accessed by the user and heard with headphones or speakers. Players that use memory chips allow the user to store files on memory cards, which can be taken out of the player. For these players only the number of cards in your collection and their storage capacity restrict the amount of listening available to you.

The most basic chip-based players do not support removable cards. These players store only as much material as the built-in memory will allow. Players offering 128 or 256 Megs of storage are commonly available for less than $100. Depending on how you save the files, you can expect even the smallest unit to hold the contents of a half dozen cd's. Chip-based players are simple devices, and much of the time the controls reflect this fact. Controls typically consist of a "start/stop" button, "forward" and "back" buttons, and volume control. Some units also have a small menu with one or two related controls. Others have no menus and are intended for nonvisual operation by all.

Apple's iPod put the hard drive-based music player on the map. Industry experts have estimated that the iPod accounts for 60 percent of portable music player sales in the United States. In the opinion of the IBTC staff, the Apple iPod is inaccessible to blind people. The physical design of the player requires the use of a flat touch-sensitive dial and three touch-sensitive buttons. While it is possible to tap several sequences on the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 positions on the round primary control, as a practical matter this is a less than satisfactory technique to operate a piece of equipment priced at over $200.

Unlike the vast majority of other MP3 players, which allow you to use many different programs to organize and transfer songs from your PC, the iPod requires the use of Apple's iTunes software. In our experience, and based on reports from many members, it is clear that this program is inaccessible to all but the most experienced and motivated computer user. For these reasons we do not recommend the iPod for consideration when nonvisual use is anticipated.

Fortunately the popularity of the iPod has energized the market for hard drive players. Several which we have evaluated appear to provide excellent nonvisual access. If you are looking for an advanced player, you may want to keep the following questions in mind: Are the primary controls consistently accessible? Each of these controls is important in basic player operation and needs to be accessed easily.

Is the use of the menu required for the functions you want to perform? Some players default to a particular view of the list of tracks on the disc. Others require you to choose the arrangement of tracks, requiring use of the menu.

Is there a clear button? A few units (see recommendations) offer a reset button, which will return you to the top layer of the menu.

What software will support the player? You will need to rip and manage the files of audio material on your PC and transfer them to the player. Not all software is accessible, and some players will accept only files transferred from a particular program. Check out both the requirements and accessibility of the software before making a purchase.

DVR Systems

Q: Can a blind person use TiVo, or another DVR?

A: Ever since the introduction of the videocassette in the late 1970's, the prospect of watching your favorite TV program on your schedule, not when the network thinks you should watch it, has been a driving force behind much of the technical development of video recorders. Even though most VCRs have had elaborate on-screen setup menus for more than fifteen years, the old joke about the flashing blue 12:00 on the front of a piece of equipment resonates with many. Because first VCR timers were primitive on-and-off devices only, they often failed. As a solution VCR Plus was introduced, a technology that assigned a unique number to every television program. Just pick up the remote and enter the number, and the machine does the rest. More recently the availability of inexpensive, relatively large computer hard drives has provided designers a new way to save and play back prerecorded television programs. When combined with a grid of the names and categories of all available programs, this has created new flexibility and power to individualize the TV-watching experience.

This device, known generically as a digital video recorder (DVR) or personal video recorder (PVR), is gaining popularity. TiVo was the first and remains the most popular DVR PVR brand. TiVo makes the information about all TV programs available to the video recorder. With this information you can set the unit to record all episodes of your favorite programs, regardless of which channel they are on or what time of day they are aired. Detailed information provided by TiVo prevents recording duplicate programs since the system can identify specific episodes. In addition to recording specific episodes or the entire series, you can ask the system to record related programs that you might enjoy based on your viewing habits. For example, if you watch Nova, the PBS science program that airs every Tuesday night, the system can record similar programs from the Discovery or National Geographic Channels for you to watch.

Finally, because you are watching a recording of the program, you can pause the show, go back to see something again, and skip over commercials--a notion that is appealing to many consumers. In addition, when watching live programs, you can pause the show for any reason and then return to it.

TiVo systems require the use of complex menus to set up and control recording. Each movement up or down is associated with a tone heard through your loudspeakers. When you reach the top or bottom of the menu, a different, drum-like tone sounds, notifying you that you have reached the boundary. If you count your up-down movements, consistent and accurate navigation of the menus is possible.

The list of programs that have been recorded on the hard drive, however, changes as new programs are recorded and others are erased. TiVo allows you to view information about your recorded programs in several ways. These include a chronological view of the programs, a view of programs by name, a view of suggested programs, and the view of the guide from which you would select a new program or series to record. These viewing options are complex, and we still lack the experience to predict the difficulty of nonvisual access.

For the motivated viewer we suggest the following as a direction for exploration. First, set the system to record only the programs you specifically request; this avoids recording unpredictable titles. Then set the display to show a collapsed view of programs by title only. For example, I Love Lucy, The Addams Family, and Gilligan's Island would be arranged alphabetically from Gilligan to The Addams Family.

An alternative method may be possible using the Internet. You can address your box specifically from the TiVo Web site, <www.tivo.com>. A quick review of the site revealed many unlabeled links, although it was possible to get to the page for the remote access signup. We will keep you posted on further details and experiences. The bottom line on DVR PVR technology is that it is a mixed bag at best and that delving into the more advanced features of the technology is not for the technically timid.

Satellite TV and Digital Cable

Q: Is satellite TV or digital cable accessible?

A: Yes, but …. Digital cable services and the three satellite services--DIRECTV, the Dish Network, and Voom--all require the use of a set-top box. A set-top box resembles a small- to standard-sized audio component. The box connects to both your TV and home theater, if one is available, and to the cable or satellite line entering your home.

As with a VCR or DVD player, you use a remote control to manipulate the box. All systems of which we are aware provide direct access to specific channels with the keypad on the remote. This is similar to tuning a standard TV, with the exception of the use of three-digit numbers in many instances. If you have such a service, creating a channel list in a convenient format is an obvious and easy first step to enhancing your enjoyment of the system.

Beyond direct access to individual channels, these systems all provide an electronic program guide. This is typically a large grid with channel names and numbers down the left side and perhaps across the top. Pressing the guide button brings up the guide on the TV screen. The guide may appear as a transparent overlay on top of the program you are watching, or it may tune away from the program until you have completed using it.

Regardless of the way the information appears, moving up and down or back and forth on the grid allows you to look at program information and select a program directly. Pressing the select button on a specific channel or program will move you to that selection immediately. In some systems selecting an upcoming program will cause the tuner to jump to that show when it begins, regardless of what you are watching at the time.

In addition to the guide, a control also allows you to view information about the program you are viewing. Typical information that may be displayed includes the title, date of release, starring actors, and a brief synopsis. We are not aware of any accessible set-top boxes currently in general use that provide access to this program information for the blind. Computer hobbyists have experimented with systems that operate on a personal computer using the Linux operating system, but these are not generally available beyond this relatively small group.

Our experience suggests that the behavior of set-top boxes for direct channel entry is similar. Of the satellite services, DIRECTV systems are more variable in their responsiveness. The set-top box will not respond as quickly as a conventional TV tuner, so try out the box you are considering and make sure you are comfortable with the way it tunes to the channel you want.

Online TV Listings

Q: Are accessible TV listings available on the Internet?

A: An alternative technique for obtaining TV listings is to use an online service. Both <www.tvguide.com> and <www.zaptoit.com> provide free TV listings for your location and service. Rick Fox, an NFB leader in New Jersey and an advanced computer user, recently visited both sites to assess their usability.

As of March 30, 2005, he reports that tests of both sites were successful. The first time you visit these sites, you will need to specify your location by ZIP code and your TV service: satellite, cable, or off air. Mr. Fox tested with his own location information, in the New York metropolitan area using Comcast cable and for rural western Wisconsin requesting off air program information. He reports that both services are accessible with today's screen access programs. Schedules are presented in a table format, so knowledge of the table navigation procedure for your screen access program is required.

Dish Network <www.dishnetwork.com> and DIRECTV <www.directv.com> offer online program listings. A recent visit to these sites revealed generally poor usability with screen access programs. DIRECTV displays a grid for the next six hours of programming. The tables are poorly constructed, providing only a two-hour period of time to users of screen-access programs. Meanwhile, Dish Network allows you to select the time span you wish to view, the programming package you have, and several other conditions on which to focus your results. The table headings are not properly constructed, resulting in overly chatty behavior. However, moving from column to column discloses the time at which the program actually begins. A navigate, listen, and move-again technique makes the information useful.

Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider. Its sites, <www.comcast.net> and <www.comcast.com> are particularly inaccessible. Not only are links and objects unlabeled, but entire portions of the site cannot be read at all with a screen-access program. Although many other cable providers make schedules available online, we have not yet researched the accessibility of these sites.

Microwave Ovens

Q: Is there an accessible microwave oven?

A: We have placed the microwave oven among electronic devices rather than in the appliance sections of our earlier articles. The primary components of the microwave are a power supply and a small, localized radio transmitter. Microwaves, which are broadcast in the 950 MHz range, fill the cavity (appliance talk for the inside of the oven) and cook the food. Once considered exotic in household technology, the microwave is now ubiquitous. The first models, including Amana's Radar Range, were tank-like in construction. Today lightweight metal construction and miniaturized electronics have slimmed down the components to a small package that sits easily behind the control panel.

Controls of most microwaves we have evaluated fall into the flat-panel category. Generally this is an unwelcome trend since the relatively accessible knobs and buttons of earlier ovens have all but disappeared. Flat-panel controls found on microwave ovens are similar in their behavior and design to those found on stoves and ovens. Usually the microwave control has a totally flat, hard, glass-like surface.

Despite the mirror-like texture of many microwave control panels, some manufacturers create a rough surface on the locations of the actual controls. These small, dime-sized, circles or ovals can be identified by touch. Mastering the operation of the oven is a straightforward matter of learning the location of the number pad and the oven's controls. In our experience Whirlpool ovens offer many models with such textured controls.

A variation on the textured theme is found on many models from GE, as well as other manufacturers. On their control panels, textured outlines indicate the location of the keypad and other controls. In many cases these controls can be easily navigated without modification.

Microwave ovens follow the consumer electronics trend of rapid change in features and construction. Unlike larger appliances, month-to-month changes are not uncommon. As this article was being researched, Sears introduced an outstandingly accessible oven with actual buttons. Consumer Reports tested and rated it as best oven. It was then discontinued. The moral of this story is, if you find an oven that you can use, buy it immediately because it may not be available later.

In addition to the flat panel you can find other control interfaces. Panasonic has had a full-sized offering available with actual buttons. These can be easily identified and give full access to all the features of the oven. Combination appliances, which package a microwave and toaster, for example, are increasingly popular. The drive to have a unit stand out from the crowd inspires some manufacturers to create unique controls. Some of these may be useful.

Before we close the door on our microwave discussion, it is important to understand that advanced electronic controls provide a range of elaborate cooking controls. Reheating food by type and amount is a feature that requires reading the visual display found on virtually all microwaves. Although the controls of the oven may be accessible, unless voice output is available, using these very advanced features may be difficult or impossible.

Thermostats

Q: Is there an accessible thermostat for the home?

A: Yes, two fully accessible (talking) thermostats are now available. These include Kelvin, produced by Action Talking Products, and the Talking Thermostat sold by <www.talkingthermostats.com>. Each unit provides fully speech-guided use of the basic functions, temperature report, and temperature change, as well as day/night setback functions.

Principles to Keep in Mind

Q: What general guidance can you provide about devices you have not specifically outlined here?

A: A few guiding principles that have been applied to specific kinds of technology apply to many others:

·        Is there a specific button or control for each function?

·        Is the remote responsive and predictable?

·        Check to see if the device has a clear button, or whether turning it off and on clears the memory and resets the control.

·        If menus must be used, ensure that you will know when you have reached the top or bottom of the menu.

·        Ensure your ability to return an item if it does not meet your needs.

·        If a touch panel is used, you should observe clearly marked regions.

·        Ensure that you can obtain documentation in a useful format.

·        Learn whether other products or software required for using the device are themselves accessible.

·        Learn whether updates to the product are required, and if so whether they change the behavior of the product.

·        Finally, talk with other blind people in your community; your NFB chapter is the best place to begin.

Recommended Products:

Home Theater

DVD Player

MP3 Player

Microwave Ovens

Please note that these and other accessible appliances and consumer electronics will be on display at the Accessible Home Showcase at our 2005 convention in Louisville

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