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Month: January 2018

CES 2018: evolutionary, but not revolutionary, for digital access

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the world’s largest consumer technology exhibition and showcases the products likely to appear in our shops in the coming months. While CES 2017 was considered revolutionary due to the Alexa digital assistant popping up everywhere, this year is more of a continuation of last year’s trends but with improved capabilities. This includes some helpful improvements for people with disabilities and some innovative proof-of-concept products that are likely to lead to digital access improvements in the future.

Roll-up TV

The announcement that received the most attention was LG’s rollable 65” OLED TV. As noted in the video below, the prototype could be useful in a house with limited space whereby you could use it as a full-sized TV for watching movies or shrink it down to be used as a computer monitor.

While this model is only for demonstration purposes as critical features such as how to connect devices to it is still being worked out, this may prove to be significant in a few years’ time as the technology becomes more defined. From a vision impairment perspective there are significant benefits to making a TV screen instantly bigger to see text and images on the screen, then instantly put the screen back to a smaller size for other users. However, the implication I see as being particularly exciting about this is its portability. Imagine having a mobile phone that can fit in your pocket, but with the press of a button turn into a screen the size of a home TV. As a vision impaired person, I see this as a great step forward and I’m looking forward to seeing how this proof-of-concept evolves.

Digital assistants are now getting screens

At last year’s CES Amazon’s Alexa stole the show with the digital assistant being integrated into a variety of different devices. This year Google has struck back with its integration of its Digital Assistant now reaching 400 million different devices. While Alexa-based digital assistants such as the Amazon Echo have had tremendous success in the US, it’s Google that has been the winner this year due to its international push, beating out Amazon in markets such as Australia where the Amazon Echo has only just been released.

In terms of access potential, the convenience of using a digital assistant has been available for a few years now. If you have a mobility impairment, being able to simply speak to a Google Home or Amazon Echo to turn on a light switch or play music has been a significant step forward, and likewise for people with a vision impairment, home automation using a digital assistant makes it much easier to achieve things. In the video below, the Google booth at CES 2018 even demonstrated the ability to connect a device that cooks popcorn!

However, while the ability to provide hands-free and non-visual commands to achieve everyday tasks is a fantastic thing for people with vision and mobility impairments, the new trend in digital assistants which is likely to provide an improvement is the addition of screens. While it’s great to make popcorn, ,the video about the Google booth also highlights that several manufactures are providing displays for digital assistants to show information such as recipes while cooking. Although this feature is available in a limited form already using the Google Chromecast, the version of Alexa on Amazon’s Fire TV and some other Echo devices, the integration of a screen will have tremendous benefits for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired as they will be able to visually see the information provided by the digital assistant. This opens new possibilities such as the use of a Google Home-type device for an office reception desk whereby the results can be conveyed using both audio and visual feedback.

Other highlights

While there were many other products that are likely to have a profound impact on people with disabilities such as driverless cars and drones that deliver people to their destination rather than packages, their availability to the public is unlikely to be this year. However, there are a few minor improvements to existing products which will have a benefit to people with disabilities such as the domination of wireless charging for mobile phones and improvements to Virtual and Augmented Reality.

While wireless charging may not seem particularly exciting and not particularly new, its inclusion in the latest iPhone models has been flagged as a time for industry to include the feature in more affordable devices rather than just the high-end phones. The other good news is that the charging technology is standard across different devices meaning that charging mechanisms are likely to become more affordable. From a digital access perspective wireless charging can be very helpful, especially for a person with a mobility impairment as the phone can just be place don a table to charge rather than having to find and plug in a cable.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are also not exactly new concepts, but their move towards affordability and as a standalone experience not requiring a computer or phone to be attached is a notable trend from CES this year. Benefits in relation to digital access are particularly notable in terms of simulation of real-world environments for navigation and mobility, as a rehabilitation device and a good way for people without a disability to get a better understanding of a physical limitation. As these devices continue to be less cumbersome and more affordable, its significance will continue to grow.  

Overall this year’s CES is more about evolutionary benefits rather than revolutionary with improvements to digital assistants, wireless charging and virtual reality all likely to trickle into our homes during the course of the year. However, concepts such as the roll-up TV demonstrate that exciting things are on the horizon, and I’m still excited about the driverless car when the time comes that I can get one. Additional information on CES products can be found at the CNet CES 2018 news website.

Registrations open for 2018 Perth Web Accessibility Camp

The time has come again when the Perth web accessibility community comes together for its annual web accessibility camp. The event will be held on 15 February and registrations are now open.

Celebrating its fifth year, the Perth Web Accessibility Camp (PWAC) is a one-day event featuring a variety of presentations and other things relating to disability and technology.  The keynote will be David Masters from Microsoft Australia, sharing details on how Microsoft is evolving its culture to be more inclusive, including growing the diversity of its workforce to include more people with disabilities.

I’ll also be presenting at the event sharing information on the Internet of Things in relation to international developments and research relating to the tertiary education sector. Other Speakers feature from organisations such as VisAbility, Web Key IT and Blind Citizens WA. BankWest is the primary sponsor for the Camp and as such the event will be held in their Perth CBD office.  

Additional information on registering and the programme can be found on the Perth Web Accessibility Camp 2018 website. If you’d like to get a better understanding of how the day works you can also read my highlights article from last year’s PWAC event.

Audio Description on Australian television – an interview with Chris Mikul

In my former role with Media Access Australia, I used to have a tradition whereby I’d ask a prominent accessibility specialist to provide some insights on an important topic for the year ahead. In continuing that tradition on my own website, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Chris Mikul.

The speciality area of Chris is in relation to digital access in television, and to say he is an expert is an understatement – he has been working in this area since joining the Australian Caption Centre in the 1980s and continues to provide guidance as an accessibility consultant.

Chris Mikul

Photo of Chris Mikul © 2017 Media Access Australia

In this interview, Chris discusses the somewhat haphazard journey of audio description on television both here in Australia and abroad, considering the possibilities and pitfalls of an audio described video future.

SH: Can you give us an overview of what Audio Description is?

CM: Audio description is the descriptive narration of a film, TV show, performance or other media for people who are blind or have vision impairment. It was first developed for American TV in the early 1980s, and is now available on television in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Korea and many European countries. But not, sadly, in Australia. If it’s well done, it’s a wonderful service that transforms experience of media for people who need it.

SH: How common is AD in cinema and the Arts?

CM: Since 2014, audio description has been available in over a hundred cinemas owned by the four major cinema groups, Hoyts, Village, Greater Union Birch Carroll & Coyle and Reading. It’s delivered via headphones, which the consumer has to request before a screening. Unfortunately it’s not well publicised so people who would benefit from it often don’t know about it, and sometimes the cinema employees aren’t clear about it how it works either, so there can be problems when people request it. Audio description is also available for selected theatrical performances, art exhibitions, and so on.  

SH: In Australia, AD on TV seems to be elusive, but there was a trial for it some years back.  Could you tell us a bit about the trial and other AD experiments in Australia to date?

CM: There have been two trials, both involving the ABC. The first took place over 17 weeks in 2012, during which two hours of audio described programs were broadcast on the main ABC channel each day. The ABC prepared a report for the Government, which was eventually made public, and this was supposed to be followed by the Government consulting with stakeholders about a future service on TV, but this simply didn’t happen. For the second trial, in 2016, audio description was provided for programs on the ABC’s online catch-up service, iview. This was judged a great success by consumers, but again, it hasn’t been followed by the introduction of a regular service, which is extremely frustrating.

SH: How does AD on TV in Australia compare with AD in other countries such as the UK?

CM: The levels overseas vary considerably. The United Kingdom has the highest mandatory levels – 20% of programs on most channels must be audio described, but some channels have elected to do 30%. Canada has a dedicated accessible channel on which everything is audio described and captioned. The levels in other countries that have it tend to be low, but in New Zealand they’re now up to 40 hours a week. That’s a bittersweet situation for me because I went over to New Zealand in 2011 to train the first audio describers there.

SH: Do you think legislation has an impact on whether or not AD is provided on TV?

CM: Having worked in the accessibility sector for almost 30 years, one thing that has unfortunately become clear to me is that legislation (sometimes combined with the threat of litigation over discrimination) has always been the main mechanism for attaining high and continuing levels of accessibility in media. The reason that we do not have audio description on broadcast TV here is that Australian government has shown no interest in making the delivery of it mandatory, and the broadcasters don’t want to provide it because of the costs and the technical work involved.

SH: Are there any other mechanisms such as websites and apps that might be able to make AD more common?

CM: There’s actually an interesting experiment being conducted at the moment by an Australian company called Big Access Media. They have developed an app that you can use to access audio description files for some children’s programs on Foxtel (the app synchronises the file with the program’s soundtrack). That’s a good development and I’m sure we’ll see more of these sorts of solutions in the future. The main issue with something like this is that a lot of a lot of blind people, particularly older people, don’t have access to the internet, and don’t have smartphones. That’s why the blindness advocacy groups have always called for audio description to be available on TV, so everybody can experience it easily.  

SH: What do you see as the future of AD?

CM: I think it will continue to grow around the world, although it will probably be a long time before it becomes as common as captioning. In Australia, it’s hard to say. The Department of Communications recently completed an investigation into the future of audio description, during which it consulted with advocacy groups, broadcasters and access service providers. I attended meetings in my capacity as a consultant for Media Access Australia (now the Centre for Inclusive Design). A report has been completed that sets out various options, so now it’s up to the Government to decide what they’re going to do, if anything.

SH: If people would like to experience AD, what organisations are best placed to help provide information about what’s on and where?

CM: There’s no single repository of information, and because the provision of the service is so patchy here, that creates its own problems. Cinemas owned by the groups I listed above should identify audio described screenings on their websites. Otherwise it’s really just a matter of contacting theatres, art galleries and the producers of other events and asking if there will be any audio description. That’s actually a good thing to do anyway, as it will increase awareness of the service among organisations that may never have even thought of it.    

SH: Chris, thank you so much for your time.

Thanks again to Chris for providing such fantastic insights and I’ll endeavour to keep you posted throughout the year as news relating to audio description and digital access more broadly continues to break.