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CES 2017: it’s all about Alexa and the access potential of digital assistants

The world’s largest technology tradeshow, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017 wrapped up in Las Vegas earlier in the month, and there was one word on the lips of just about everyone there wanting to engage with consumer devices – ‘Alexa’, the digital assistant contained in the Amazon Echo.

Who is Alexa and what’s an Amazon Echo?

The Amazon Echo is a digital assistant launched by Amazon in June 2015. Essentially the Echo takes the form of a box connected to the Internet which is always listening.  You can communicate with it by using the word ‘Alexa’ followed by a command.   Here’s a great YouTube video providing an overview of what the Echo does and how it does it:

Why is the Echo so popular at CES 2017?

In the United States it’s very popular, and a big part of that is due to its price point.  The smaller yet fully-featured Amazon Echo Dot retails for $USD49.99.  With its relative affordability, manufactures have been eagerly making use of the Echo as an easy interface in the home to drive products.   Examples include the LG Smart InstaView Refrigerator, and the C by GE Lamp with Alexa.  Alexa can even be asked to order food thanks to Amazon Restaurants.

How this relates to access

The reason why the integration of the digital assistant is so significant in regards to accessibity is because it adds one more interface choice for people with disabilities.  For example, if you are blind or vision impaired and can’t see the panel on a washing machine, the ability to provide instructions or ask questions to a digital assistant means that the appliance is now accessible.  Likewise if a person in a wheelchair can’t reach a light switch, being able to ask Alexa to turn on the lights in the kitchen becomes a valuable tool at a relatively low cost.  While it’s still important that traditional options are available such as flicking a light switch, having more ways to interact with devices will continue to support people with disabilities going forward, and the possible uses of digital assistants are only just beginning.  If you’d like to read more about how Alexa has been integrated into the devices there’s a great CNet article featuring all the CES 2017 devices that feature Alexa.

Amazon Echo V Google Home

In Australia the Amazon digital assistant is a little hard to come by, so one option that has recently received a lot of attention is Google’s offering into this space, the Google Home.  Like the Amazon Echo it’s a digital assistant that can be activated by saying ‘Hey Google’ or ‘OK Google’ and then giving a command.  There are both similarities and differences in what it can do with most reviews suggesting the Echo is slightly ahead due to being around longer and having more support, but for people located outside of the US it’s a great option.  Here’s Google’s official promotion video for the Google Home.

Other new products

In addition to Alexa, there were some other products definitely worth your attention.  One of the ones I thought was particularly interesting was the laptop with three screens by Razer.  As a screen magnifier user, real estate can get pretty tight when zooming in, especially on a small laptop screen.  The idea I can fold out two more screens would provide a lot more space for me to view my work and I really like that idea. 

Speaking of big screens, the other hit of the CES was LG’s ‘wallpaper’ TV which is just 2.67mm thick for the 65-inch model and is so light it can attach to your wall with a few magnets.  Again from a vision impaired perspective, any giant TV with a crisp OLED display that I can almost literally throw on a  wall works for me, but its estimated $AUD12,000 price tag means it’s unlikely I’ll be buying it anytime soon.

Generally products feature at CES appear in our stores around April so it’ll be interesting to see which products make it to Australia.  Fingers crossed as new technologies continue to get supported, accessibility continues to be included.  

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