by Wesley Majerus
From Barbara Pierce: Wes Majerus is an access technology specialist in the NFB Jernigan Institute’s technology department. Here is his report on the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES):
Each year in early January Las Vegas is home to the largest consumer electronics tradeshow in the world. It is a chance for vendors from all over to showcase concepts and products under development as well as to highlight hardware and software on the immediate horizon. This gives wholesalers, journalists, and others in the industry a chance to take a look at these products all in one place. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute has an initiative in consumer electronics that promotes best practices in accessibility and raises awareness among manufacturers as the consumer electronics industry rapidly changes and adopts interfaces that will raise problems for the blind.
This year three staff members from the NFB Jernigan Institute (Mark Riccobono, executive director; Karen Zakhnini, manager of corporate outreach; and Wesley Majerus, access technology specialist) joined two other Federationists (Michael Barber, president of the NFB of Iowa, and Mike May, CEO of the Sendero Group) to explore what CES had to offer. This was an opportunity to spread awareness about accessibility by talking directly to product manufacturers, developers, and marketers. It was also a chance for us to come away with ideas of accessible products already available for our continuing consumer electronics initiative. It allowed us to evaluate trends in the consumer electronics industry and to identify any concerns that may evolve. We would like to share with you some of the thoughts we came away with after three days of examining thousands of consumer electronics hardware and software solutions.
Many times throughout the week in Vegas, we found that manufacturers were simply unaware of product accessibility. The show gave us a great opportunity to explain how blind people use products and which features would be necessary to make them accessible. One product that holds some promise is an inexpensive remote produced by RCA's accessories that is slated to appear on store shelves this spring. This remote offers speech output and voice recognition. It is a universal remote in that it can control multiple devices such as a television, a DVD player, and the set-top boxes commonly used for satellite broadcasting or digital cable. By talking to the device, you can instruct it to turn a device on or off, change the channel, or perform another specific function. Though a remote like this does not make menus in DVDs or the electronic guide on your satellite broadcast system accessible, it can be useful for setting up functionality and making operation of devices more straightforward. The voice recognition and output on this remote can also be used to set up the remote itself, in other words, to program the remote to communicate successfully with the specific devices you currently have.
The remote also supports Macro commands, which allow you to perform a series of functions by speaking one phrase. For example, if you said, "Watch DVD,” the remote could be programmed to switch your TV to the proper video input source and switch on the DVD player. In another instance you could say "Hello" to have your TV and set-top box turn on simultaneously. At an estimated price of $39, this remote is something that almost anyone can afford and make part of a home entertainment system.
Sticking with the TV theme, we were able to examine a new type of set-top box that has not yet hit the market. Ocean Blue Software, a company from the United Kingdom, has produced a prototype of a digital set-top box, the device that sits on top of your TV and displays programs from digital TV, cable, or satellite broadcasts. This set-top box has been specially adapted with text-to-speech software that reads the information displayed when you switch channels, including program name, duration, and special attributes, like whether subtitles and audio descriptions are available.
Going a step further, one can enter the electronic programming guide to determine what is being shown at a given time on a given channel. In this mode you can learn the duration of the program; obtain detailed information, including a plot summary; and learn any special features of the program such as video description and subtitle inclusion. Most of these set-top boxes have menus through which aspects of the device can be customized to your liking. Ocean Blue's set-top box allows access to these menus. This prototype had clear-sounding speech, and its use seemed straightforward. We hope to persuade U.S. broadcasters to include such software in their set-top box models to allow greater access to the world of interactive TV.
Apple's iPhone has popularized the concept of one device that does almost anything through the download of small programs called apps. These apps mean that you can do everything from streaming your favorite hometown radio station and bidding on auction items on eBay to booking airline tickets through specific applications developed by various providers. This concept is still evolving on Apple's App Store, but it is also catching on elsewhere. For example, some new TV sets now connect to your home Internet link. These TVs allow you to check your Yahoo email or send a tweet on Twitter. Some TVs can also allow you to stream movies on demand through the popular Netflix movie service. Hulu, a popular free service for watching TV shows online, can be accessed through a device called the Boxee, which attaches to your TV and to your home computer network.
It is currently impossible to access these applications nonvisually. No solution exists to read the screens required to manipulate the controls or to play the streaming content. In one case, for a Vizio large screen TV, the remote seemed usable tactilely. It was a standard TV remote on first glance. By pushing the spring-loaded top surface aside, a full QWERTY keyboard for completing Internet searches or writing email was revealed. Television-based applications and set-top boxes that are Internet-driven are a new and exploding industry trend. We in the NFB will continue to work toward accessibility of these types of devices as they provide even more computer-like functionality.
Another promising industry trend centers on cloud computing, the ever-growing Internet, and mobile devices. We became acquainted with a company called iSpeech.org that provides speech output to any Internet-enabled application. Text sent to its servers is returned as clear-sounding speech. An example of its work is featured in the application DriveSafe.ly. This application can read your text messages aloud to you when you are driving and can give you the opportunity to communicate with the phone by voice to determine what should be done with the text or email after it is read. The application sits on the phone and manages these transactions, but all of the work related to speaking the data is done on large computers with fast processors, which allows the speech to be clear and understandable.
In-vehicle navigation systems are also beginning to harness this type of technology. In one scenario a prototype car dashboard was shown with integrated computer technology. By monitoring the status of the vehicle, traffic data, driving trends, and favorite news categories, a user could receive a full daily report. By prompting the system for this report, the user was told in clear-sounding speech where the cheapest gas could be found along the way and which exits should be avoided because of traffic and road construction, as well as a summary of the top news stories of interest. This report was dynamically generated in that the car detected its level of fuel and provided the driver with gas prices because the tank was nearing empty. It also gathered real-time traffic data and news headlines through the use of a cellular data link that was part of the system imbedded in the car. Though blind people cannot drive today, this technology could have applications in future vehicles that the blind can drive. Asking for information by voice and obtaining an auditory response could be one of the tools allowing blind drivers to make decisions as they pilot their vehicles down the road.
In these times of heightened security and energy costs, home automation is gaining some traction. One company that provides such a solution is Control4 Home Automation. Their system centers on a small box called the Home Controller. For $299 the least expensive Home Controller can manage up to seventy devices made by third-party vendors to comply with the standards that Control4 has adopted. These devices include keypads with configurable buttons, thermostats, audio amplifiers, electronic door locks, and fire protection/detection equipment, among others. For the most part, control of such systems takes place through keypads and touch screens. They are professionally configured and installed, and one of the options available is to have audio files added that confirms actions being taken and gives alerts of any adverse conditions like smoke being detected, or doors being opened unexpectedly.
Basic applications such as these can be monitored through mobile phones such as the iPhone, whose screen mimics that of one of the Control4 touch screens used while inside the home. We urged the developers of these mobile applications to follow published guidelines and to make their apps accessible. Control4 is also entering the apps market so that, for example, you could tweet, read the news, or get TV listings on one of their touch screens that is on your bedside table. Because these external applications use flash, you cannot use them on mobile devices, and they are not accessible even while inside the home. It will be interesting to see where the future of home automation leads and to determine how accessible it can be made.
GPS was also another interesting area at CES. Though no one had blindness-specific GPS solutions at the show, there were some promising possibilities. The Garmin booth housed the 800-series handheld GPS units. These devices can be used both in vehicular and pedestrian situations. They offer the capability to respond to voice commands to activate any button on the touch screen and to search for POIs (nearby points of interest). We urged Garmin to provide functionality to activate vehicular and pedestrian mode by speaking a voice command. Though you can control the device by speech recognition, the onscreen output is not accessible. We urge manufacturers to provide speech output in addition to speech recognition to devices such as these.
Also available was the Garmin Nuvifone, which combines cell phone service from AT&T with a Garmin GPS product. This product is different from adding GPS software to a cell phone, because with GPS integrated, you can use GPS while on a call, and the maps are preloaded. We also saw CoPilot Live, a GPS package that has been used on Windows Mobile and other platforms in the past but which is now coming to Android and the iPhone. If Android gains traction in nonvisual access, it may be possible to make an app like CoPilot Live accessible. We urged the representative there to follow published Apple guidelines to make their iPhone app accessible.
Continuing with a discussion of the iPhone, another trend we observed at CES was the ability to control various services and devices with the iPhone and iPod Touch, collectively referred to as iPhone apps. With the latest release of iPhone OS, it is possible to control devices by plugging them into the thirty-two-pin dock connector or through wireless means. Unfortunately, many of the devices we saw could not be tested for accessibility on site. However, we discussed how iPhones are used by blind people in the hopes that app developers will make their apps accessible. We were intrigued by the XM Skydock, a car-mounted iPhone solution that turns your iPhone into the control mechanism for XM satellite radio through a free app installed on the iPhone. A free service called Slacker Radio provides access to music from virtually all record labels through professionally programmed genre-based stations or by allowing you to search for a specific song or artist. After arriving home from CES, we gave this app a try, and it is fairly accessible, although it does have a number of unlabeled buttons. It provides much cleaner access to Slacker Radio than slacker.com, which was virtually unusable with screen-access software.
In summary, CES is a large venue with much to offer the gadget lover or anyone else who is interested in consumer electronics. The National Federation of the Blind is striving to make consumer electronics accessible. The show put us in touch with various manufacturers and gave us hands-on access to devices, services, and software that will affect the community in the months and years to come. Our continued leadership in consumer electronics will become increasingly important. Look for new tools from the NFB Jernigan Institute to empower you to provide feedback on consumer electronics you find particularly accessible. You can check out our blog at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Access_Technology_Blog.asp> to read short takes on access technology products as well as other products and services that we are evaluating. Our consumer electronics accessibility guide is also available to provide you with a list of appliances we have tested and found to be accessible, as well as guidelines you can use on your next trip to the electronics store.