Comcast today announced the industry’s first voice-enabled television user interface, a solution that will revolutionize the way its Xfinity TV customers, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, navigate the X1 platform. The "talking guide" features a female voice that reads aloud selections like program titles, network names and time slots as well as DVR and On Demand settings. The feature will be available to all X1 customers in the next few weeks.
About 19 million U.S. households have at least one member with a disability and according to the U.S. Census, there are 8.1 million people with a visual disability. In 2012, Comcast hired Tom Wlodkowski as Vice President of Audience to focus on the usability of the company’s products and services by people with disabilities.
"Television is universally loved, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it," Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO, Comcast "The talking guide feature will enable all of our customers to experience the X1 platform in a new way, and give our blind and visually impaired customers the freedom to independently explore and navigate thousands of shows and movies. We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in the accessibility space and we are thrilled to have Tom and his team leading the charge."
The talking guide "speaks" what’s on the screen as the viewer navigates the "Guide," "Saved," "On Demand," and "Settings" sections of X1 and includes details like individual program descriptions and ratings from Common Sense Media and Rotten Tomatoes that help viewers decide what to watch. Future versions of the feature will include functionality within the "Search" section of X1 and additional personalization settings like rate of speech.
"The talking guide is as much about usability as it is about accessibility," said Mr. Wlodkowski. "We think about accessibility from the design of a product all the way through production and this feature is the result of years of work by our team including customer research, focus groups and industry partnerships. For people like me who are blind, this new interface opens up a whole new world of options for watching TV."
X1 customers will be able to activate the talking guide on their existing set top box by tapping the "A" button twice on their remote control. The feature also can be turned on via the "accessibility settings" within the main settings menu. Click here to see how it works.
"Programming my DVR is one of the most empowering things I have ever done with my TV," said Eric Bridges, Director of External Relations and Policy Development at The American Council of the Blind (ACB), who participated in a Comcast customer trial over the summer. "My wife and I are both blind, so thanks to this new feature, we no longer have to choose between going out to dinner or catching our favorite show. The talking guide encourages independence and self-sufficiency; it’s a real game-changer for anyone who is blind and loves TV."
Next year, Comcast plans to partner with service organizations and nonprofits to create awareness in the disability community of Voice Guidance and other accessibility features that offer a more inclusive entertainment experience.
"TV is such an important and integral part of the fabric of our culture that to be excluded from that experience in any way makes it more difficult for blind people to participate fully in society," said Amy Ruell, a Comcast customer. "I had a chance to test this feature over the summer and I probably watch more TV than ever thanks to the talking guide. Comcast’s commitment to accessibility is encouraging because it means there will be tremendous progress in developing technology that is universally accessible."
The talking guide is the latest in a series of innovations created in the Comcast Accessibility Lab. In addition to voice guidance and one-touch access to closed captioning, Comcast created an online help and support resource for Xfinity customers looking for information about accessibility-related topics. The webpage includes an overview of accessibility products and services, support for third-party assistive devices, information related to Braille or large-print bills and the ability to connect with accessibility support specialists.
The company also has a service center specifically dedicated to customers with disabilities. Comcast’s Accessibility Center of Excellence is based in Pensacola, FL, where a team of specially trained care agents handles about 10,000 calls each month.