TV for the blind: How new technology is making entertainment accessible to all
by Sheila Cain
By Sheila Cain
Burien resident Marlaina Lieberg, 67, has watched TV her entire life, despite being blind since birth. Over the years, she has relied on spoken cues from family members and her husband to fill in the blanks. More recently, she has enjoyed video-described programs that insert narrated descriptions of key visual elements into natural pauses in the dialog.
But she’s always struggled with tasks such as maneuvering through on-screen menus in search of programs to watch or record.
“You had to memorize how many ‘down’ arrows to push, then how many ‘left’ and ‘right’ arrows, with no confirmation that you did it right,” she says.
To watch or record a show, Lieberg often had to enlist the help of her husband, Gary. Her own use of the remote control was basically limited to flipping through channels and adjusting the television’s volume.
That all changed last September when she began using Comcast’s “talking TV guide” technology, a service she can access through her voice-controlled TV remote, voice-enabled TV menu and interface, and X1 tabletop box.
The service, which responds to spoken commands and also voices the movements the user makes with the remote, drastically simplified the search process and has opened up her world immensely.
“I’m enamored with it,” says Lieberg, who immediately put the system to work by digitally renting the movie, “Pitch Perfect.”
The talking guide is just one of several efforts Comcast has made in recent years to make its cable television devices and technology universally accessible, whether that means providing closed captioning services for use in noisy settings such as gyms and airports, or, as in Lieberg’s case, offering audio cues to assist the visually impaired.
Comcast started developing its accessibility program in June of 2012, shortly after Congress passed a law designed to bring accessibility laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s up to date with 21st century technologies. Much of the work has been done in a new accessibility product and development lab in Philadelphia, where eye-gaze technology, voice recognition software and other technologies are tested and fine-tuned. Comcast also hosts regular roundtable events with segments of the disability community to find out what products are working, where the gaps are, and where new opportunities lie.
“Consumer engagement is critical for effective design,” says Tom Wlodkowski, Comcast’s vice president of accessibility. “When you think about entertainment, you don’t want to have to work too hard to get at it. When you’re chilling on the couch, you don’t really want to think about how to make the talking guide work. It really should be that easy.”
For the fiercely independent Lieberg, it is not only easy, it’s empowering. “One of the cool things to do is surf around with the guide. I could never do that (before),” she says. “Whether I care about it all or not, I want to know it’s there.”
Lieberg is able to scroll through a list of shows she’s previously recorded (her favorites include the “Chicago” franchise on NBC, and “Downton Abbey” on PBS) by speaking “Show my recordings” into her remote. The system responds by visually listing the shows she’s recorded on the screen, then guiding her next action by saying, “Press arrow left or right to review.” As each listing is highlighted, the voice speaks the name of the program and when it was recorded. To access the show, Lieberg presses “Enter.”
The technology also comes in handy for her husband, Gary, who can see. Like his wife, Gary will often speak into the talking guide to find shows that he wants to watch, bypassing the on-screen menus that he used to use.
“When you can tell it to find a particular football game, for instance, and it will go out and find the channel the Huskies are playing on, it’s just very convenient,” he says.
That’s exactly what Wlodkowski wants to happen. The company embraces the “universal design” concept, says Wlodkowski: It seeks singular, multi-modal designs that work for all users. In other words, it wants to open up its products to all people, regardless of abilities.
“We want accessibility to not even be viewed as ‘accessibility,’” Wlodkowski says. “It’s just part of our technology. It’s just how it works.”
Wlodkowski, himself blind since birth, has been surprised by the immediate consumer response to Comcast’s accessible technologies.
“Even I underestimated how hungry people who are blind were for access to TV listings, video on demand, the ability to schedule and play back DVR recordings, and navigate settings independently,” he says. “We knew it was important, but the feedback we get from consumers is unbelievable.”
Wlodkowski recalls hearing from a visually impaired woman in her 20s who, for the first time in her life, was able to schedule and play back a DVR recording and purchase a movie on-demand.
“How many millennials have been doing those types of functions since they were able to hold a remote?” he says. “They take that for granted. With the talking guide, for the first time we’re able to enable this person to do those things.”
According to the U.S Census, one-third of U.S. households have at least one member with a disability. And even many without disabilities — 68 percent, according to Comcast — say they would benefit from some sort of accessibly technology such as closed-captioning.
So it makes sense to make accessibility a concern, regardless of the target market.
“The more we can build in accessibility solutions into mainstream products, the more we are able to make access affordable for people who can really benefit from these solutions,” says Wlodkowski.