Controlling your home appliances with you voice

You know a particular technology is fast approaching mainstream when every manufacturer seems to be developing add-ons to make their products work with it.

From Samsung’s SmartThings to August Smart Home Locks, 3rd-party developed skills are voice experiences that add to the capabilities of any Alexa-enabled device (such as the Echo). For example “Alexa, set the Living Room lights to warm white” or “Alexa, lock the front door.” These skills are available for free download. Skills are continuously being added to increase the capabilities available to the user.smart controlled lock on a door

smart controlled lighting in a living room

he Amazon Echo is a smart speaker developed by Amazon. It is tall cylinder speaker with a built-in microphone. The device connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service Alexa, which answers to the name “Alexa”. The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, and other real-time information
However, it can also control many smart devices using itself as a home automation hub.
The videos below give an example of using your voice with smart home products.
https://youtu.be/V7WfxI3ecVI
https://youtu.be/pH8fg1noIj0

The good: As far as price goes, the Amazon Echo comes in various forms, the
Amazon Echo Dot costs £44.99 which seems affordable. All the Amazon skills that add to the capabilities of any Alexa-enabled device are free.

The not so good: Requires internet connection to work. If your internet goes down then your ability to control the devices around you also does too.

The verdict: A good way to dip your toe in the Internet of Things waters, more capabilities on the way.

Accessibility Checker for Word Tutorial

The Accessibility Checker feature has been part of Microsoft Office for the last few iterations of the software package. It provides a fast and easy way to check whether the content you are producing is accessible to users of assistive technology. By making accessibility accessible Microsoft have left no room for excuses like “I didn’t know how…” or “I didn’t have time..”. You wouldn’t send a document to all your colleagues full of misspellings because you were in a hurry would you? The one criticism that could have been leveled at Microsoft was perhaps they didn’t provide enough support to new users of the tool. As I said above it’s easy to use but sometimes users need a little extra support, especially when you are introducing them to something that may be perceived as additional work. Thankfully Microsoft have filled that gap with a 6 part tutorial video which clearly explains why and how to get started using Accessibility Checker. Part 1 is a short introduction (embedded below) followed by a video on each important accessibility practice; Alternative Text, Heading Styles, Hyperlinks, File naming and Tables. Each video is accompanied by a short exercise to allow you put your new skill into practice immediately. The whole tutorial can be completed in under 20 minutes. This tutorial should be a requirement for anybody producing documents for circulation to the public. Have a look at the introduction video below.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day – Apple Accessibility – Designed for everyone Videos

Today May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and to mark the occasion Apple have produced a series of 7 videos (also available with audio description) highlighting how their products are being used in innovative ways by people with disabilities. All the videos are available in a playlist here and I guarantee you, if you haven’t seen them and you are interested in accessibility and AT, it’ll be the best 15 minutes you have spent today! Okay the cynical among you will point out this is self promotion by Apple, a marketing exercise. Certainly on one level of course it is, they are a company and like any company their very existence depends on generating profit for their shareholders. These videos promote more than Apple however, they promote independence, creativity and inclusion through technology. Viewed in this light these videos will illustrate to people with disabilities how far technology has moved on in recent years and make them aware of the potential benefits to their own lives. Hopefully the knock on effect of this increased awareness will be increased demand. Demand these technologies people, it’s your right!

As far as a favorite video from this series goes, everyone will have their own. In terms of the technology on show, to me Todd “The Quadfather” below was possibly the most interesting.

This video showcases Apple’s HomeKit range of associated products and how they can be integrated with Siri.

My overall favorite video however is Patrick, musician, DJ and cooking enthusiast. Patrick’s video is an ode to independence and creativity. The technologies he illustrates are Logic Pro (Digital Audio Workstation software) with VoiceOver (Apple’s inbuilt screen-reader) and the object recognizer app TapTapSee which although has been around for several years now, is still an amazing use of technology. It’s Patrick’s personality that makes the video though, this guy is going places, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own prime time TV show this time next year.

The Big Life Fix

Just when we thought 2016 couldn’t get any better (in an AT sense) BBC make a prime time TV show with a huge focus on the design and construction of bespoke AT solutions. Although aired in December on BBC due to regional restrictions it’s not available to many on this side of the Irish Sea on iPlayer so you may not have had the chance to see full episodes yet. The good news is full episodes are beginning to make their way onto YouTube and are well worth a look. The general theme of the Big Life Fix would be how technology has the power to improve lives. Although not just about what we call assistive technology, it is more broad in scope covering many different types of technology challenge with the goal of democratising and demystifying solutions. AT does play a big part in many of the challenges however.

The first episode (a clip of which I’ve embedded below) introduces us to James, a young photographer who is having difficulty operating his SLR camera. The solution created for James features all the exciting technology and techniques being utilised every day by Makers around the world: Arduino microprocessor, 3D printing, AppInventor as well as some good old fashioned hardware hacking. The iterative nature of the design process is well illustrated with James critically evaluating the initial prototype and providing insights which significantly change the direction of the design.The other AT related challenge in this first episode features a graphic designer called Emma who due to tremors which are a symptom of her Parkinson’s, is unable to draw or sign her name. After a number of prototypes and lots of research a very clever solution is arrived at which seems to be extremely effective, leading to a rather emotional scene (have the hankies ready).

The Big Life Fix beautifully portrays both the potential of AT to improve the quality of life as well as the personal satisfaction a maker might get from participating in a successful solution. I can see this show sowing the seeds for a strong and equitable future for assistive technology.

Finally, the icing on the cake is that all the solutions featured on the show are Open Source with all the source code, design files and build notes that were used to print, shape and operate the solutions publicly available on GitHub. Nice work BBC. Take a look at the clip below (UPDATE: Full Episodes now on YouTube. Not sure how long they will stay there though).

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology

There is of course some cross over between the different AT highlights of 2016 I have included here. An overall theme running through all the highlights this year is the mainstreaming of AT. Apple, Google and Microsoft have all made significant progress in the areas previously mentioned: natural language understanding and smart homes. This has led to easier access to computing devices and through them the ability to automate and remotely control devices and services that assist us with daily living tasks around the house. However these developments are aimed at the mainstream market with advantages to AT users being a welcome additional benefit. What I want to look at here are the features they are including in their mainstream products specifically aimed at people with disabilities with the goal of making their products more inclusive. Apple have always been strong in this area and have lead the way now for the last five years. 2016 saw them continue this fine work with new features such as Dwell within MacOS and Touch Accommodations in iOS 10 as well as many other refinements of already existing features.  Apple also along with Siri have brought Switch Control to Apple TV either using a dedicated Bluetooth switch or through a connected iOS device in a method they are calling Platform Switching. Platform Switching which also came out this year with iOS 10 “allows you to use a single device to operate any other devices you have synced with your iCloud account. So you can control your Mac directly from your iPhone or iPad, without having to set up your switches on each new device” (need to be on the same WiFi network). The video below from Apple really encapsulates how far they have come in this area and how important this approach is.

Not to be outdone Microsoft bookended 2016 with some great features in the area of literacy support, an area they had perhaps neglected for a while. They more than made up for this last January with the announcement of Learning Tools for OneNote. I’m not going to go into details of what Learning Tools offers as I have covered it in a previous post. All I’ll say is that it is free, it works with OneNote (also free and a great note taking and organisation support in its own right) and is potentially all many students would need by way of literacy support (obviously some students may need additional supports). Then in the fourth quarter of the year they updated their OCR app Office Lens for iOS to provide the immersive reader (text to speech) directly within the app.

Finally Google who would probably have the weakest record of the big 3 in terms of providing inbuilt accessibility features (to be fair they always followed a different approach which proved to be equally effective) really hit a home run with their Voice Access solution which was made available for beta testing this year. Again I have discussed this in a previous post here where you can read about it in more detail. Having tested it I can confirm that it gives complete voice access to all Android devices features as well as any third party apps I tested. Using a combination of direct voice commands (Open Gmail, Swipe left, Go Home etc.) and a system of numbering buttons and links, even obscure apps can be operated. The idea of using numbers for navigation while not new is extremely appropriate in this case, numbers are easily recognised regardless of voice quality or regional accent. Providing alternative access and supports to mainstream Operating Systems is the corner stone of recent advances in AT. As the previous video from Apple showed, access to smartphones or computers gives access to a vast range of services and activities. For example inbuilt accessibility features like Apple’s Switch Control   or Google’s Voice Access open up a range of mainstream Smart Home and security devices and services to people with alternative access needs where before they would have to spend a lot more for a specialist solution that would have probably been inferior.

ORACLE AND EDF OFFER A SCHOLARSHIP TO A STUDENT WITH DISABILITY

computer user siting on letter e

APPLY BY 15/09/2016
EDF and the company Oracle are pleased to announce a scholarship of 8.000 EUR to a student with disability of a high education programme studying in the field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the academic year of 2016-2017. It will be awarded based on a project or thesis that will be conducted during the academic year. The project or thesis should take into account the needs of persons with disabilities in terms of accessibility to ICT, and/or an innovative solution to enhance their access. How can you apply? Find more information on EDF’s website.

Applications to be sent by 15 September 2016.
If you have any questions, please write an email to: eaccessibility.scholarship@edf-feph.org.
DFI is a member of the European Disability Forum. The European Disability Forum (EDF), is the umbrella organisation representing 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe.
EDF have partnered with Oracle and have announced an e-Accessibility scholarship

Wheelmap.org

find wheelchair accessible places

Barriers in public environments constantly prevent mobility-impaired people from free movement and participation. A narrow doorway here, a step there – that’s all it takes. Wheelmap looks like a very worthwhile project.  It is an open and free online map for wheelchair-accessible places. It empowers users to share and access information on the wheelchair-accessibility of public places.  Anyone can participate by tagging places.

Map of accessible places in Dublin

Places that are not yet marked have a grey tag and can be quickly and easily marked by everyone. The crowdsourced information is free, easy to understand and can be shared with everyone.

Logged in users can upload photos to places or write comments to further describe the wheelchair accessibility of a place! This additional information makes it easy for mobility-impaired users to determine whether they can access the place or not.

Get tagging..

Text production – Keeping focused and removing distractions

These days when it comes to writing a document most of us go straight to our computer. In the area of literacy support there are many advantages to using a computer for text production: spelling and grammar support, word prediction, speech recognition etc. However in this post I want to look at the disadvantage. Thanks to the web, the computer gives us access to limitless information resources while at the same time it is also the source of limitless distractions. Although this is a problem faced by everybody (or at least the weak willed among us) reducing the availability of distractions can be beneficial to some people with literacy difficulties who find text production more arduous. Below are a couple of products that attempt to offer the advantages of physical keyboard input, word processing and web connectivity without the potential for distraction that usually accompanies the latter. Both could be loosely called Smart Typewriters and also offer advantages over modern laptops or tablets in areas like battery life and durability. If buying an new device is not practical or perhaps a bit over the top, at the end of the post I’ll look at some browser plugins and apps that aim to achieve the same result without the need of abandoning you primary computing device.

alphasmart neo2 word processor. looks like a black keyboard with a small grey screen

The AlphaSmart Neo 2 (pictured above) is the most recent in a line of smart typewriters that were favoured both in classrooms and by professional writers and journalists for many years. It offers accessibility features like Sticky Keys and Slow Keys, Spellchecker, Typing Tutor and they claim it can sync with Google Docs (I wasn’t aware of this until now and can’t confirm it). This device was last updated in 2010 and discontinued by the manufacturer in 2013 yet I suggest it is far from obsolete. They are available on Ebay for about €25, even less if bought in bulk. It will last up to a year on 3 AA batteries and is tough enough to take quite a bit of punishment.

FreeWrite smart typewriter. White keyboard and e-ink screen at the top displaying some text

It was coming across this new product, the FreeWrite that actually got me thinking about the AlphaSmart Neo above. FreeWrite (pictured above) is a similar product except offering a (much) better keyboard, better screen and more current online syncing capabilities (Google Drive, Evernote, Dropbox currently). Details are a little sketchy on whether the FreeWrite offers keyboard accessibility features like Sticky Keys or Slow Keys or even word processing capabilities like a Spellchecker or thesaurus. However one advantage concerning accessibility it has over the AlphaSmart is that it does offer the ability to adjust the font size and a larger screen to accommodate this. The FreeWrite isn’t cheap (available for pre-order at over €550) but it looks like a quality product (the Cherry mechanical keyboard would be a joy to use and the e-ink screen will offer your eyes a much needed break from the glaring display as well as being usable in direct sunlight). I’ll update this when (or if) they come back to me about the accessibility features, without which I fear this product will remain an object of desire for hipsters and professional writers and of no practical use to many of us.

Update: FreeWrite got back to me with the following reply.

“there are no plans for a spellchecker or other accessibility features but that doesn’t mean they won’t be added by us or someone else in the future. The Freewrite is a platform that we are opening up to developers so we expect that it will be extended and modified. We’d love to support you and the needs of a lot more people!”.

I find this both disappointing and exciting at the same time. It’s a completely understandable approach for a new company launching a niche product. Do you put  resources into implementing accessibility features? or do you put them into creating the best platform possible and leave it open for other developers to adapt and build functionality. It’s like iOS v Android. Keep an eye on FreeWrite.

If leaving the computer isn’t an option or your preference, techniques like time-boxing (Pomodoro) can help you to keep focused. As can removing visual distractions, creating consistent background noise or if all else fails removing temptation by actually blocking sites. Below are some apps and plugins that might be useful in this area.

  • FocusWriter – simple, distraction-free writing environment with additional tools like timers, daily goals and sound effects
  • StayFocused – increases productivity by limiting time that spent on time-wasting websites
  • Strict Workflow – 25min/5min workflow (Pomodoro): 25 minutes of distraction-free work, 5 minutes of break.
  • Background sounds and white noise – does what it says..

Upcoming conferences in Dublin

Reducing the digital divide: the role of Education

European Network for Technology Enhanced Learning in an Inclusive Society

Rapid advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) are changing lifestyles across the globe. However, many people with disabilities and elderly people experience difficulties in engaging with ICT and therefore may be prevented from fully enjoying its benefits.

The ENTELIS seminar “Reducing the digital divide: the role of Education” will be held in Dublin on the 12th of November is dedicated to the role of education in bridging the digital divide.

http://www.entelis.net/

 

Universal Design in Education

Universal Design in EducationThe drive to increase participation in higher education is often at odds with the need to encourage and develop all students to be technically proficient and yet creative, independent and socially aware thinkers that are engaged with the world outside of the campus walls.

In collaboration the Universal Design in Education conference will be held in the same venue as the ENTELIS seminar.  This is a two day conference consisting of a series of workshops, keynote speakers, exhibitions and a 24 Hour Universal Design Hackathon.

http://education.universaldesign.ie/

 

“Reducing the digital divide: the role of Education” 12th November 2015

“Universal Design in Education” Conference 12th & 13th November 2015

Venue: Dublin Castle

Universal design in the home

No two people are the same and no two people have exactly the same ability.  For this reason a universal design approach to the way we design our products, services and environments is essential.  Universal Design creates inclusive design solutions and promotes accessibility and usability, allowing people with all levels of ability to live independently.

As we spend much of our time within our homes, it make sense to have our homes designed in a way that meets the needs of all those that will live in it.  People are diverse, some are left-handed and some right-handed and vary in their age, size and functional abilities.

The Universal Design Living Laboratory is a really interesting home or project located in a suburb of Ohio, USA.   It is the home of Rosemarie Rossetti and her husband Mark who decided to create a custom home to suit their needs and serve as both a showcase of Universal Design products and a real-life laboratory to test out how Universal Design features work in a home over time.  The motivation for the home came about after Rosemarie’s needs change after an accident.  Rosemarie uses a wheelchair and Mark stands over 6ft tall.

Follow Mark, as he describes some of the universal design features that are incorporated into his home (Universal Design Living Laboratory).

Rosemarie shares some universal design storage tips.

 

In summary, some of the main universal design features are as follows;
Within the kitchen there are multiple height counters and plenty of manoeuvring space.
kitchen with multiple height counters

Pull-out storage makes reaching items easier.

Pull-out storage

The oven and microwave are mounted in the lower cabinets and have side-hinged doors that make reaching the food easier.

oven and microwave are mounted in the lower cabinets

A raised dishwasher provides wheelchair accessibility and eliminates the need for standing users to stoop.

Disk washer at raised height

A pot-filler faucet is located near the cooktop and in-counter steamer, eliminating the need to carry heavy water-filled pots to the stove.A pot-filler faucet is located near the cooktop and in-counter steamer

A Side-by-side style refrigerator/freezer lets seated users access both areas easily.

A Side-by-side style refrigerator and freezer

A pull-out cart provides flexibility between under counter storage and knee clearance.

A pull-out cart between under counter storage

Within the shower a Roll-in shower area includes trench drains, seats, and hand-held sprayers.Roll in shower

A large ledge around the bath facilities transferring in and out.  Glass block mosaic brings in light while maintaining privacy.A large ledge around the tub facilities transferring in and out

Sinks at different heights helps to accommodate different users

sinks at different height

Wheelchair accessible pathways are installed in the garden, which includes raised plant beds.Wheelchair accessible pathways installed a garden which includes raised plant beds

Other universal design features include

  • Step-free entrance
  • All doors without thresholds that are wide enough for a wheelchair or walker (36”)
  • Wider hallways (46 “)
  • Lever handles on doors and faucets
  • Full extension drawers and shelves in kitchen base cabinets
  • Cooktop set into a counter with open knee space
  • Casement windows
  • Lower rocker style light switches (36” above the floor)
  • Higher electrical outlets (25” above the floor)
  • Large bathroom with decorative grab bars
  • Wood, non-slip tile and a dense weave, low pile (< ½”) carpet floors
  • Large bathtubs with plenty of grab bars
  • Curbless roll in showers with plenty of grab bars
  • Slide bar for shower head
  • Hand-held, flexible shower fixture
  • 17-19” high toilet seats
  • Adjustable hanging closet rods and shelves
  • Front loading washer and dryer
  • Open knee space under all sinks

For further reading on Universal Design you might be interested in:
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design
The Center for Universal Design (CUD)