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.
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.
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.
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.
Speech Recognition has been around a long time by technology standards however up until about 2010 most of it was spent languishing in Gartner’s wonderfully named “Trough of Disillusionment”. This was partly because the technology hadn’t matured enough and people were frustrated and disappointed when it didn’t live up to expectations, a common phenomenon identified by the previously alluded to Hype Cycle. There are a couple of reasons why Speech Recognition took so long to mature. It’s a notoriously difficult technical feat that requires sophisticated AI and significant processing power to achieve consistently accurate results. The advances in processing power were easy enough to predict thanks to Moore’s Law. Progress in the area of AI was a different story entirely. Speech Recognition relies first on pattern recognition, but that only takes it so far. To improve the accuracy of speech recognition improvements in the broader area of natural language processing were needed. Thanks to the availability of massive amounts of data via the World Wide Web, much of it coming from services like YouTube we have seen significant advances in recent years. However there is also human aspect to the slow uptake of speech driven user interfaces, people just weren’t ready to talk to computers. 2016 is the year that started to change.
Siri (Apple) who was first on the scene and is now 5 years old and getting smarter all the time came to MacOS and AppleTV this year. Cortana (Microsoft) who started on Windows Phone, then to the desktop with Windows 10, made her way onto Xbox One, Android and iOS and is soon to be embodied in all manner of devices according to reports. Unlike Siri, Cortana is a much more sociable personal digital assistant, willing to work and play with anyone. By this I mean Microsoft have made it much easier for Cortana to interact with other apps and services and will be launching the Cortana Skills Kit early next year. As we’ve seen in the past it’s this kind of openness and interoperability that takes technologies in directions not envisaged and often leads to adaption and adoption as personal AT. If there was a personal digital assistant of the year award however, Amazon Echo and Alexa would get it for 2016. Like Microsoft, Amazon have made their Alexa service easy for developers to interact with and many manufacturers of Smart Home products have jumped at the opportunity. It is the glowing reviews from all quarters however that makes the Amazon Echo stand out (a self-proclaimed New Yorker Luddite to the geeks at CNET). Last but not least we have Google. What Google’s personal digital assistant lacks in personality (no name?) it makes up for with stunning natural language capabilities and an eerie knack of knowing what you want before you do. Called Google Now on smartphones (or just Google App? I’m confused!), similar functionality without some of the context relevance is available through Voice Search in Chrome. They also offer voice to text in Google Docs which this year has been much improved with the addition of a range of editing commands. There is also the new Voice Access feature for Android currently in beta testing but more on that later. In the hotly contested area of the Smart Home Google also have a direct competitor to Amazons Echo in their Google Home smart speaker. Google are a strong player in this area, my only difficulty (and it is an actual difficulty) is saying “ok Google”, rather than rolling off the tip of my tongue it kind of catches at the back requiring me to use muscles normally reserved for sucking polo mints. Even though more often than not I mangle this trigger phrase it always works and that’s impressive. So who is missing? There is one organisation conspicuous by their absence with the resources in terms of money, user data and technology who are already positioned in that “personal” space. Facebook would rival Google in the amount of data they have at their disposal from a decade of video, audio and text, the raw materials for natural language processing. If we add to this what Facebook knows about each of its users; what they like, their family, friends and relationships (all the things they like), calendar, history, interests… you get more than a Personal Digital Assistant, maybe Omnipersonal Digital Assistant would be more accurate. The video below which was only released today (21/12/16) is of course meant as a joke (there are any number of things I could add here but I’ll leave it to the Guardian). All things considered however it’s only a matter of time before we see something coming out of Facebook in this area and it will probably take things to the next level (just don’t expect it to be funny).
What does this all mean for AT? At the most basic level Speech Recognition provides an alternative to the keyboard/mouse/touchscreen method of accessing a computer or mobile device and the more robust and reliable it is the more efficiently it can be used. It is now a viable alternative and this will make a massive difference to the section of our community who have the ability to use the voice but perhaps for any number of reasons cannot use other access methods. Language translation can be accurately automated, even in real time like the translation feature Skype launched this year. At the very least this kind of technology could provide real-time subtitling but the potential is even greater. It’s not just voice access that is benefiting from these advances however, Personal Digital Assistants can be interacted with using text also. Speech Recognition is only a part of the broader area on Natural Language Processing. Advances in this area lead directly to fewer clicks and less menu navigation. Microsoft have used this to great effect in their new “Tell me what you want to do” feature in their Office range. Rather than looking through help files or searching through menus you just type what tool you are looking for, in your own words, and it serves it right up!
Natural Language Processing will also provide faster and more accurate results to web searches because there is a better understanding of actual content rather than a reliance on keywords. In a similar way we are seeing this technology working to provide increased literacy supports as the computer will be able to better understand what you mean from what you type. Large blocks of text can be summerised, alternative phrasing can be suggested to increase text clarity. Again the new Editor feature in Microsoft Word is made possible by this level of natural language understanding.
As we approach the end of 2016 it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the year from an AT perspective. A lot happened in 2016, not all good. Socially, humanity seems to have regressed over the past year. Maybe this short term, inward looking protectionist sentiment has been brewing longer but 2016 brought the opportunity to express politically, you know the rest. While society steps and looks back technology continues to leap and bound forward and 2016 has seen massive progress in many areas but particularly areas associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes. This is the first in a series of posts examining some technology trends of 2016 and a look at how they affect the field of Assistive Technology. The links will become active as the posts are added. If I’m missing something please add it to the comments section.
So although 2016 is unlikely to be looked on kindly by future historians… you know why; it has been a great year for Assistive Technology, perhaps one of promise rather than realisation however. One major technology trend of 2016 missing from this series posts is Virtual (or Augmented) Reality. While VR was everywhere this year with products coming from Sony, Samsung, Oculus and Microsoft its usefulness beyond gaming is only beginning to be explored (particularly within Education).
So what are the goals for next year? Well harnessing some of these innovations in a way where they can be made accessible and usable by people with disabilities at an affordable price. If in 2017 we can start putting some of this tech into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from its use, then next year will be even better.
Now Amazon Alexa can be used with any Harmony hub-based remote, such as Harmony Elite or Harmony Companion. You can say “Alexa, turn on the TV”
Amazon have three products, the Echo, Dot, and Tap that all have Alexa Voice Service. Users access music, information, news, sports scores, weather, and more. There is a growing number of smart home devices and applications that work with these devices that will enable greater access, especially for people with physical disabilities. One new product Echo works with is Logitech’s Harmony Hub. The Harmony Hub and app allows users to control multiple appliances on one digital device. People can use their smartphone, tablet, or Echo to control lights, stereos, the television, and more.
To use the Echo and Harmony Hub as a hands-free remote users must link the two devices together. One way to link the two devices is through the use of IFTTT, a free web-based service. Once all of these components are linked together, users can control devices, such as a television, with their voice.
Here is a quick video demonstrating the two devices and IFTTT working together. https://youtu.be/l7BE7lNkVPY
With iOS Apple have firmly established themselves as the mobile device brand of choice for those with alternative access needs. The extensive accessibility features, wide range of AT apps and third party hardware as well as iOS’ familiarity, ease of use and security, all make it a choice hard to look beyond. Yet this is exactly what many people do, 1.3 Billion Android devices were shipped in 2015, that’s 55% of all computing devices mobile or otherwise. A large majority of these would be budget smartphones or tablets purchased in developing markets where the price tag associated with Apple products could be considered prohibitive. There are however reasons other than cost to choose Android and thankfully Google have been quietly working away to give you even more. One in particular, which is currently in beta testing (click here to apply) is Voice Access. As its name suggests this new accessibility feature (and that is what it is being developed as, immediately distinguishing it from previous speech recognition apps) allows complete access to your device through voice alone. I’ll let Google describe it: “Voice Access is an accessibility service that lets you control your Android device with your voice. Using spoken commands, you can activate on-screen controls, launch apps, navigate your device, and edit text. Voice Access can be helpful for users for whom using a touch screen is difficult.” It certainly sounds promising and if these aspirations can be realised will be very welcome indeed. Voice control of mobile devices is something we are frequently asked about in Enable Ireland’s Assistive Technology Training Service. I’ll post more on Voice Access after I’ve had the opportunity to test it a bit more. In the meantime take a look at the video below to whet your appetite.
Another alternative access option now available to Android users is a third party application developed and promoted by CREA with the support of Fundación Vodafone España called EVA Facial Mouse. EVA Facial Mouse has been created by the same people who brought us Enable Viacam for Windows and Linux and seems to be a mobile version of that popular and effective camera input system. EVA uses a combination of the front facing camera and face recognition to allow the user position the cursor and click on icons without having to touch the device. See video below for more on EVA (Spanish with subtitles)
Reviews of EVA on Google Play are mostly positive with many negative reviews most probably explained by device specific incompatibilities. This remains the primary difficulty associated with the use and support of Android based devices as Assistive Technology. All Android devices are not created equally and how they handle apps can vary significantly depending on the resources they have available (CPU/RAM) and how Android features (pointing device compatibility in this case) are implemented. That said, on the right device both new access options mentioned above could mean greatly improved access efficiency for two separate user groups who have up until now had to rely primarily on switch access. Next week I will release a post reviewing current Android phones and follow that up with a couple of in-depth reviews of the above apps and their compatibility with selected Android devices and other third party AT apps like ClickToPhone.
Voice recognition can be an incredibly useful tool. It is now built into desktop operating systems and tablet devices. It can alleviate handwriting difficulties, such as slow handwriting speed and illegibility, and it can also help people with dyslexia who may know exactly what they want to say, but putting it down on paper can be a real barrier.
This is worth having a look. Dictation is a free online speech recognition software powered by Google Chrome. You can use Dictation to write emails and documents in the browser. The recognition accuracy is very good and there is no training involved.
You don’t have to speak in English as Chrome’s engine can recognize quite a few languages. Dictation will automatically determine your browser’s default language and uses it for subsequent transcriptions.
Amazon Echo is a voice command device from Amazon.com with functions including question answering, playing music and controlling smart devices. It has got mixed reviews from gadget reviewers such as Gizmodo and CNET but overall it’s quite good. For someone who requires an always on, handfree device to look up information, play their favourite music or control lights this could be a solution.
The device contains a microphone array that responds to the name “Alexa”. It works in a similar way to other voice assistants such as Siri, Google Now or Cortana and has good voice recognition according to the reviewers. Unfortunately the Amazon Echo can’t control Infra-Red devices yet, however recently, it is now able to control a number of Wink-compatible lighting products which brings it now into the Smart homes area.