• Adam Woollacott

Identifying Solutions for Accessibility in Voice Technology


Accessibility
Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

Adam Woollacott

Digital Assistant Academy

May 2021


- What products are currently available that are designed for Accessibility?

- Which have voice enabled solutions? – How do they help users?

- What about the non-voice enabled solutions? – If voice was incorporated, how would it help?


Overview


Designing for Accessibility and Inclusivity is such a vital step when talking about conversation design, with both chatbots and voice assistants. According to WHO, 15% of the world’s population are believed to be living with a disability, so that’s an incredible amount of people living without the means of help. By identifying some solutions that have been designed for accessibility, it can open up further discussions about how voice technology is helping people, whilst also suggesting how the use of voice technology could be incorporated in the designs to reach a wider set of people.




1. Mantis Q40 – Braille QWERTY Keyboard


The Mantis Q40 is a refreshable braille QWERTY keyboard, that helps users that are visually impaired or blind. It was designed to act as a middle ground between a traditional QWERTY keyboard and a braille keyboard, to enable users not have to sacrifice one or the other.

The Mantis Q40 braille QWERTY keyboard

Whilst the user types on the keyboard, the braille refreshes automatically underneath, allowing the user to take part and be successful at their work or school. It also can act as a braille book reader once connected up to a device, such as a laptop or computer.


Main functions

· Basic editor to act as a user’s pen and paper.

· Book reader to read books in braille.

· Clock for the date and time.

· Calculator


On initial research, it doesn’t currently come with any voice capabilities. However, incorporating voice technology into this already unique device could be an interesting idea to make it even more accessible to a wider variety of users. Automatic Speech Recognition would allow users to speak to the keyboard to input text or data in a much quicker and more efficient way. This would then be transcribed and converted to braille. To get a full service, a Text-to-Speech (TTS) engine could then be applied to read back what the user has inputted, either through the physical pressing of keys or through voice. This proposed idea would help the visually impaired or blind users massively reduce the friction of using technology and allow them to have multiple options of inputting data.



2. Interactive Voice-Powered Web Pages/Screen readers


Screen readers are an essential tool for those who are blind or visually impaired. Whilst there are many applications and devices that offer these services, it’s main focus is to allow documents, web pages, and any words on the screen, to be able to be understood through different modalities such as touch (braille - mentioned in the previous product), magnifiers and through a synthetic voice. The system uses various TTS engines to allow people to listen to the words on the screen, whilst being able to customise the experience through different voices, speeds, tones, to suit everyone’s needs and wants. This allows users to have much more independence whilst using technology, not having to always rely on other people.



3. HeardThat


HeardThat

HeardThat is a smartphone App that focuses on hearing assisted technology to allow people to hear spoken word and conversations within noisy environments. It uses artificial intelligence to reduce the background noise and focus on amplifying the voice for people to hear. This is useful as most traditional hearing or wearable devices can’t distinguish between noise and speech. Machine learning is used with trained neural networks from thousands of hours of recordings to separate and remove the noise to allow for a better speech intelligibility. This application can be used for a wide variety of people, especially elderly people or people with hearing loss. It helps people in social situations and environments such as family events, cafes and restaurants, allowing the individual to join in and be part of conversations, without the fear of being left out due to hearing problems.


View the demo here.



4. EduMic


EduMic

The EduMic is a wireless microphone, that connects to hearing-assisted devices in order to help children with hearing lost continue their learning in the classroom and at school, where multiple noise and acoustic problems occur. The microphone could be attached the teacher who is at the front of the classroom, and the child is able to clearly hear what the teacher is saying with a simple press of a button. This allows children with hearing impairments to feel included and ensures that their learning is uninterrupted.



5. SwitchBot – Smart Curtain


SwitchBot – Smart Curtain

SwitchBot is a small, wireless motorised unit, that allows users to open and close their curtains wirelessly. They can be activated and controlled through various methods such phone apps, voice activation, remote control and even through automatic light sensors. It can be voice activated through Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri, allowing for users to integrate it within their smart home ecosystem. Whilst this can be useful for a wide spectrum of people, it can particularly be useful for people who have restricted movements and can’t reach the curtains. By allowing for activation through voice, allows for users to talk to their main hub device without having to move.



6. Microsoft Seeing AI


Microsoft Seeing AI

Microsoft Seeing AI is an app that narrates the world around the person in a variety of different languages, designed for the blind and low-vision communities. It turns the visual world in an audible experience by using the phone camera to describe and explain nearby people, objects and texts. It uses a mix of AI technology to identify objects and read out the description using a Text-to-Speech engine. This is incredibly useful for help to make everyday life a better experience for people with visual problems.



7. Automatic door openers


Automatic door openers are used to keep opening doors free of hands and hard work. They can be activated by a number of different ways including sensors, buttons or voice activations. Some brands can also lock the door, to provide that extra layer of security. These products can enable anyone with a mobility issue to flow freely from different rooms in a building or outside without worrying about if they will put themselves in any danger trying to open big, heavy doors. The voice activation within this technology, allows for a seamless transition, and making mobility more accessible.


8. Mac Speak up


Apple have incorporated more accessible features on their products in recent years with the inclusion of customisable speak controls. For people who find it difficult to read text from the screen, a simple keyboard shortcut, along with an on-screen controller allows the user to change various controls of the Text-to-Speech such as the rate, stop, play, pause, forward and rewind. Other customisation includes highlighting the spoken text on the screen to that it is easier to read and follow through both modalities of visual and voice. By adding this speech feature on the devices ensures that people have multiple options to make their experience a positive one.



9. Bell Tecla-e

Tecla-e is a portable, hands free device that allows people with mobility issues to use an array of technical devices easily. Users can use their head movements, various controllers and buttons to control devices such as their mobile phone through wireless technology. All the features can be fully customised to allow matching everyone’s individual needs. It allows anyone with mobility issues to do everyday tasks like search the web or check their emails. Whilst also being connected through the cloud, it can connect with other internet connected devices to open doors, change temperature and adjust various controls. It doesn’t, however, use voice technology as a method of control. By incorporating voice into the system would allow for a wider range of options the user could do, depending on the environment.


Bell Tecla-e


10. WeWalk Smart Cane


The WeWalk Smart Cane helps and guides the visually impaired to independently travel safely. It leverages voice technology and ultrasonic technology to provide people with useful indications of the environment around them whilst they are walking. It utilises a touchpad, speaker and sensory tools to help the users, whilst sending vibrations along the cane to alert the user of close obstacles. The voice assistant is also a huge part of the design. Through a touch of a button, it links with the smartphone application and allows for the user to ask about local information such as landmarks, Ubers, and directions, whilst also linking to various travel networks. The voice assistant is always updating and getting smarter so this will only increase the possibilities for the user.


WeWalk Smart Cane

It's aimed and focused for people with visual impairments, giving them the sole focus for the design and accessibility options. It uses an object – the walking stick/cane – that has been used for a long time and has adapted it by keeping the original format and design the same. This helps ensure that users won’t need to change the way they use the cane, but they have additional features and help that can have a massive impact to their lives. The WeWalk Smart Cane is focused on providing maximum safety to those who are visually impaired.


View the video here




Conclusion


Finally, all of these products help to make products more accessible and allows for greater independence. The feeling of independence is vitally important for the elderly and for people with disabilities. Some of the reasons why it’s important include:

- Gives the person a sense of achievement.

- Eases daily frustrations

- Creates a feeling that they still contribute to society.


It's vitally important that the research and design methods are continued. Identifying and producing even more accessible and inclusive solutions, will have a positive impact for a wider population, without any bias or exclusivity. Voice technology can play a major role in this. The solutions mentioned in this research document show that utilising voice as a modality alongside other modalities, can dramatically improve the lives of people around the world. Granted, using voice, may not be suitable for every occasion, but by bringing the technology into the conversation and design process, it will increase prospects for more inclusive and accessible world, with the potential to reach millions of people.



www.adamwoollacott.com




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