Smart Homes, User Agents and People With Vision Impairments

Recently, in my life away from this blog, I have been doing a lot of research into smart devices, smart houses and how people with vision impairments may best be able to use them.  I’ve read about a few blind people hacking together their own smart spaces but we cannot expect those without a strong technical background and the zeal of a hobbyist to go the DIY route.

Since joining the V2 Standard Committee a few years back, ideas about smart homes and smart technologies have been at the forefront of my thinking.  Freedom Scientific did a pretty nifty job with PAC Mate Commander to let a PM serve as an infrared based universal remote control which, as far as I know, makes it the first user agent that can be operated by a blind person.  Unfortunately, the FS program only handles IR and does nothing about UP&P, Home Net or any of the other smart protocols.

In the past few years, an increasingly large number of mainstream companies have entered the smart appliance business (for the purposes of this article, I use the word “appliance” to mean anything electronic.  So, herein, an appliance can be anything from a dishwasher to an MP3 player to a router to a PDA.)  The list of companies that have jumped on the smart appliance bandwagon might surprise some readers as they are not those that we typically associate with high technology.  Companies like Sears/Kenmore, Maytag, General Electric and many others we ordinarily associate with “old” technology have started selling refrigerators, dishwashers and microwave ovens that can be connected to a smart house network.

What does this mean for blind people?

If all was perfect, adding intelligence to home appliances would make them much more accessible to people with vision impairments.  A user could take their user agent and, through it, have all of the controls on their oven read to them and, much like using a web page or accessible application, set the oven to do what they want.  This would, of course, also be true for all of the other appliances with annoying flat panel, LCD or on screen menus.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a technology utopia.  To begin with, there isn’t a user agent accessible to blind people available yet.  Next, AT companies do not seem to be cooperating with the appliance companies and have little or no presence at conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show or the huge home appliances conference held in Chicago every year.  Some of the mainstream companies are trying to build in self voicing elements that blind people can use but these are inconsistent and don’t always expose all of the features.  I find many self voicing products from the mainstream to be very frustrating because they talk so slowly and do not have a way to change the speech rate either.

What about a Universal User Agent for people with vision impairments?

This project can definitely be done and I know some people in universities working on the problem as I type this entry.  I urge my friends in research not to attempt to design new hardware to suit this purpose but, rather to use off the shelf Windows Mobile devices like the iPAQ running Mobile Speak Pocket as it will be the least expensive and least bulky solution.  If an off-the-shelf device won’t do the trick (for a deaf/blind person for instance) I recommend the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific as it also runs Windows Mobile so the software can be written to work with both commercial PDA units and the PM at the same time.

What problems stand in the way of developing a user agent?

A lack of standardization is the biggest hurdle to success.  Unless a consumer wants to be locked into a single source for their smart devices, they may have trouble finding products that are compatible with each other.  A networking bridge can probably be created that can harmonize diverse standards but this would be a tricky bit of software engineering that could have a lot of reliability problems if not done in a letter perfect manner.

What do people with vision impairments want in a smart house?

This question is one I would like to hear answered by people who read this blog.  Me, I want everything and won’t be happy until every appliance, whether I have a use for it or not, has been made accessible.  I know that I want a way to work around the flat panel, LCD and on screen menus for the types of products I already own (refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine, drier, stereo, DVR, VCR, television, electric piano, drum machine, sequencer, etc.  I don’t know which appliances other people want to use so cannot set priorities beyond the most obvious.

So, readers of Blind Confidential please send me your ideas on what you would like to have in your smart house of the future and I’ll try to find people who are working on such (like my friends at U. Florida) and see if we can get your ideas integrated.  If you do a quick google search on smart devices, appliances, systems, etc. you will find thousands of different products out there.  The smart home future is upon us and now we need to make it accessible to people with vision impairments.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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