Why Apple’s problems with its HomePod smartspeaker may benefit disabled iPhone users everywhere

Apple’s new HomePod is less of a smartspeaker and more a great quality speaker, but I thinks its advent spells good news for disabled people everywhere.amazon echo

The smartspeakers sensation

Smartspeakers or ‘Home Assistants’ are here to stay - the best-selling item in the UK and US Amazon stores was the Amazon Echo Dot (pictured right), which has sold in the millions and is the home of Amazon’s popular artificial intelligence (AI) Alexa.

Less popular, but no less useful and entertaining, is the Google Home series. From the Google Home Mini to the huge Google Max, there is a Google equivalent speaker at a price and audio-quality to match Amazon’s range.

Some of these smartspeakers have screens but these are an incidental extra to an otherwise audio-only interface. You talk to your favourite home assistant and she (it’s usually a female voice) helpfully replies with the information, music or game of your choice.

Apple’s HomePod hits the scene

Coming very late to this party is the Apple HomePod (pictured right). Almost three years after Amazon created this category of tech, Apple has released a single model of smartspeaker which, due to its limited smarts at this time, is marketed as being a great speaker that can also do a very few home assistant-type activities.

Undoubtedly a beautiful product in both looks and sound, the HomePod at £329 is comparable in price to other high-end speakers that have built-in music streaming capabilities such as those from Sonos. However, the HomePod will inevitably be compared with other home assistants that have better AI capabilities. Even Sonos speakers which, until very recently, had no AI now have models that ship with Amazon’s Alexa built-in and for a comparable price.

Siri must now step up to the mark

The problem is that Siri, the AI built-into iPhones and iPads, has been falling behind in the smartness-stakes for some time. And the version that ships with the HomePod offers only a fraction of what Siri on your phone can do. 

When compared to Alexa or Google’s Assistant the HomePod looks fancy but doesn’t seem that clever. 

Apple HomePodDespite trying to focus on the quality of the sound, Apple is already suffering some poor press due to this obvious comparison with other products in this space. 

I’m sure they predicted this and I am equally sure that they are pulling out all the stops to improve the version of Siri that lives in the HomePod so that, within months, it will do all the basic features (such as being able to check your calendar) we’ve all come to expect from other Home Assistants.

The clock is well and truly ticking

Apple needs to ensure that Siri on the HomePod can do the basics, but it will also need to be extensible like its competitors. It needs the ability to add third-party utilities, games and features such as Echo’s ‘skills’ and Google Home’s ‘apps’. Apple says that there are no plans for a ‘skill store’, but it will have to happen for them to compete – and again sooner rather than later.

A smarter Siri is better for everyone

Siri is a handy helpmate when you want to find a fact, set a timer, quickly send a text or create an appointment. For iPhone users with disabilities, however, that ability to have AI assist you with tasks can knock whole minutes off the activity. As a result, some disabled smartphone users consider their AI-assistant as not just a nice option for doing daily tasks, but as a massive time-saving addition to the smarts of their phone.

In routine tests of Alexa and Siri, in which I ask each to give me even the simplest of information (such as “When did America gain its independence?”), the Alexa comes up trumps every time, while Siri falls back on a web search. This will have to change – and quickly. Now that the screenless HomePod is on sale and open to public scrutiny, the imperative for it to become smarter is all-important for Apple. 

The no-screen advantage

The fact that Alexa was developed in devices that did not have a screen means her abilities to give you information in a smart, conversational form has pushed the Alexa far ahead of Siri; who until now has only existed in devices that have a screen.

As I mentioned above, how many times have you asked Siri a seemingly straightforward question only for her to say “I’ve done a web search for that” and give you a number of search results – none of which immediately furnish you with the answer you were after. Alexa has never had the option of falling back on such a lazy response and, as a result, has now had many months of development that largely explains her huge popularity (that and the price). 

An AI race to be best is good for everyone, including disabled people

As Apple scrambles to improve Siri’s smartness in the screenless HomePod, the company must surely bring those improvements back into the iPhone and iPad. No longer will we be thrown out to a web search or have her say ”Hmmm, I’m not sure about that” – instead we should actually get us the answer we need.

Siri getting smarter will help everyone - but every disabled iPhone or iPad user will be doubly delighted. A race to be the best is just what we need to help these smart assistants be great at assisting those most in need.

Robin Christopherson is AbilityNet's head of digital inclusion 

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Inaccessible websites keep disabled people out of work, AbilityNet tells government taskforce

AbilityNet has told the UK government that web accessibility, in particular making online job opportunities accessible, is essential if it wants to hit its target of one million more disabled people in employment in the next decade. AbilityNet was asked to give written and verbal input into the government’s Work & Pensions Select Committee’s Assistive Technology Inquiry at the end of January 2018. 

man at work in front of computer screen displaying the word inaccessible

In his written response, AbilityNet’s CEO Nigel Lewis, explained: “Much of recruitment is now online; the problem is that inaccessible websites and online application systems remain a big barrier for disabled people looking for a job. Over 90% of websites, for example, don’t even meet single-A compliance with the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) set by the World Wide Web consortium (W3C), whereas the legal minimum is AA (a higher standard than single A and lower than top compliance level AAA).”

Enforcing the law on accessible websites and apps

AbilityNet has previously called on government to enforce the legal requirement for websites and apps to be accessible in accordance with the 2010 Equality Act. In the US, it is becoming more common for companies to be sued for having inaccessible websites. Sadly the trend seems to be going the wrong way - as we recently reported 40% of local council websites are inaccessible to disabled people, an increase from last year's figure of 35%.

“We don't need new laws to help disabled people, but a high-profile shift to enforcement of existing legislation could have a significant impact on the landscape,” said CEO Lewis.

The Inquiry has been set up in light of the government’s commitment to remove barriers to employment for disabled people, following its research finding that one million disabled people are unemployed but want to work. 

Is assistive technology still needed?

AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion Robin Christopherson (far right in photo) was also called to give evidence to the Inquiry on the 31 January, along with Hector Minto (pictured below in middle), senior technology evangelist at Microsoft. Discussions centred around the role of assistive technology in removing barriers to work for disabled people, and whether the government's Access to Work service is the most effective way of providing access to assistive technology. 

Tracey Johnson, Hector Minto and Robin Christopherson in ParliamentChristopherson told the inquiry that many of the latest smartphones and computers have built-in, free software to assist disabled users and that while assistive technology can be useful still, more education and awareness is needed around what standard devices can do for free using the newest software and artificial intelligence. He highlighted that information on making the most of technology for individual abilities and conditions was freely available on the My Computer My Way website

Inclusion maximises talent

The Select Committee asked Christopherson about Access to Work - a government scheme that provides workplace adaptations for disabled people who are already employed. He says that Access to Work only reaches 25,000 people in the UK - whereas millions are in need of adjustments. It also doesn't support job seekers in the same way as something like Clear Talents, a tool developed jointly with AbilityNet which gives employers and applicants tips and advice on simple changes which will support individual workplace requirements for everyone. 

Hector Minto, who works in accessibility and assistive tech for Microsoft told the Inquiry that Microsoft, Google and Apple, all have a disability answer desk to support people to make simple useful adaptations to their technology. However, he said this service is not being maximised. “We took 400,000 calls last year (on the Microsoft answer desk) yet most Access to Work suppliers are not using them.” The majority of the calls, he said, were from people working on US government and council communications and websites.

An Opinium survey of 4,000 people released in September 2017, commissioned by pan-disability charity Scope, found that when applying for jobs, half of applications result in an interview, compared with 69% for non-disabled applicants. It also found that on average disabled people apply for 60% more jobs than non-disabled people in their job search.

The Inquiry is still open for those who would like to give their opinion on disability, employment and assistive technology. See the link at the bottom of the blog to contribute to the Inquiry.

Related blogs

Read Robin's earlier blog on what he told the Inquiry: "It's important for individuals to be given a level playing-field"

Need help making your website accessible?

Speak to our accessibility team here.

Want to have your say on assitive technology and disability in the workplace?

The Inquiry is still open, here. 

* Assistive technology software advisor Tracey Johnson, who also gave evidence, is pictured on the left of the above photo

How computers can help people with tinnitus

This is Tinnitus Awareness Week. Often a poorly understood, tinnitus is a condition of the auditory system that creates noises which don’t have any external cause. It is often described as “ringing in the ears”, but can also be experienced as a buzzing noise. Over six million people in the UK have some form of tinnitus and anyone of any age can get the condition, from children right through to older people.

Headphones You might be surprised to learn that computers and other technology can help with tinnitus - including apps and special headphones.

We’d always suggest that you first have a chat with your medical experts to get their advice, but studies have shown that white noise can help reduce the signs of tinnitus. There are several free and low cost “white noise apps” which can help mask the annoying ringing or buzzing sounds.

There are also apps that play music which can in certain circumstances reduce the levels of tinnitus that you experience. One such app is called Tinnitracs - please note that the app recommends that you get a diagnosis from your doctor before using it.

Everyone seems to have a pair (or two) of headphones nowadays and, if you have tinnitus, you might want to consider headphones which work slightly differently to standard ones. For example you could try bone-conducting headphones, which do what they say on the tin as the sound is transmitted to your brain via your bones, rather than your ears. 

But a note of caution: one of the common dangers of listening to your music too loudly via headphones, is….you’ve guessed it, Tinnitus.

Tinnitus Week 2018 #tinnitusweek

Check out the video about how you can support Tinnitus Week 

More help from AbilityNet

AbilityNet provides a range of services to help disabled people and older people with technology and communications.

AbilityNet tells Commons Select Committee how tech can help disabled people in the workplace

AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, Robin Christopherson MBE was amongst the experts called to give evidence to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Assistive Technology in the workplace. The inquiry is part of government’s aim to see one million more disabled people in employment in the next decade.

On 31 January, the Committee invited Robin, along with a representative from Microsoft to give evidence on the role assistive technology can play in improving disabled people's employment rates.

Parliament TV showed the session live and the recording is online now

How technology can help disabled people in the workplace

The Committee is asking three key questions:

  • What role can assistive technology play in removing barriers to work and helping disabled people stay in work?
  • How should the Government support the development of this technology, and are there any particular innovations it should look to support?
  • Is Access to Work the most effective means of providing access to assistive technology? Should other funding models be considered?

There were two panels: the first comprised assistive technology users and Access to Work assessors. The second included AbilityNet and Hector Minto of Microsoft, representing IT manufacturers. 

Both panels were played live on Parliament TV, with Robin and Hector Minto from Microsoft giving evidence from 10:24.

Mainstream tech solutions can help disabled people

Robin spoke about that fact that, as well as specialist assistive technologies, the latest mainstream technologies can now meet the needs of many disabled people often for free or at low cost. 

He also explained how emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence are bringing solutions such as voice recognition and image recognition that can be of huge value to many disabled people.

Robin also spoke about AbilityNet’s My Computer My Way website, which shows simple adjustments to computers, smartphones and other tech depending on ability, as well as ClearTalents (CT). ClearTalents is a job application service which shows potential employers easy adjustments they can make to give a great potential new employee the best working environment depending on their individual needs and circumstance.

Robin Christopherson with Tracey Johnson and Hector Minto at the House of Commons Select Committee on 31 January 2018

Speaking after the session Robin said:

“It was a huge honour to be able to give evidence and have the opportunity to contribute to this very important remit – namely to review and make recommendations to help improve the employment opportunities of disabled people in the UK through technology. With the right adjustment and often very basic support, disabled people can perform on a par with non-disabled people.

"It's important for individuals to be given a level playing field, but it's now recognised that having a diverse workforce is good for business - it makes for better products and services. If we can crack the challenge of equipping everyone to perform at their best, then that’s better for our workers of both today and tomorrow.”

Read AbilityNet's written submission

What do you think?


Three signs web accessibility will be big in 2018

computer network, multiple screensResearch by students at Stanford University shows a bigger focus on web accessibility for businesses and developers in 2017, with the trend set to continue exponentially into 2018. The students drew their conclusion after looking at the popularity of accessibility keywords around web accessibility on social media, as well as the frequency of accessibility events and the number of accessibility Github repos.  Here’s why accessibility looks to be a big deal in 2018.

1. Web developers have an increased focus on accessibility

GitHub's (software development platform) digital directories or ‘repos’ created for the term a11y (meaning web accessibility) rose from about 260 in 2016 to around 370 in 2017. Developer engagement and participation in accessibility shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

2. Big companies are more focused on accessibility

The accessibility-themed Twitter accounts of Google and Facebook: @googleaccess and @fbaccess posted more than ever before in 2017. In particular @googleaccess more than quadrupled its output from around 50 tweets in 2016, to around 280 Tweets last year.

3. More than 26,000 accessibility events took place around the world in 2017!

The researchers looked at Eventbrite for events matching the terms ‘visually impaired’ and ‘screen reader’ and found the number of these events had risen stratospherically. In total, there were more than 26,000 accessibility events on the site for 2017.

The researchers used the Github API to give these results and noted that this might not give the full picture, but should offer a view on trends.

More about the Stanford research

Twenty Years of Tech - and AbilityNet

I’m very proud to have been with AbilityNet since the very start. Today marks our 20th birthday - and it’s worth taking a look at just how far we’ve come…

Two decades of changing lives through tech

Whichever way you look at it the past 20 years have been a blast! When AbilityNet was first founded in 1998, the internet was still young and fresh, computer speeds were measured in megahertz, mobile phones weren’t nearly so mobile (and definitely weren’t so smart) and the terrifying Y2K digital-apocalypse loomed large.

Toyota's driverless car made for Google, image credit Steve Jurvetson

Photo: Toyota's driverless car made for Google  |  Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

Today, the unstoppable rise of the smartphone has created a tsunami of smart gadgets and wearables, the internet is everywhere (and in everything from your watch to your washing machine) and self-driving cars and trucks are being road-tested on the streets of cities across Europe, the US and around the world.

Through all these changes, one thing hasn’t altered; AbilityNet has remained at the very cutting-edge, using our expertise to help people with disabilities.

Celebrating the power of tech

In these two decades, the technology has evolved in eye-opening ways but its potential to help overcome impairments has existed from the very start. In education, at home and in the workplace we’ve continued changing lives through the power of technology - helping many millions of people across countless countries reach their full potential.

Robin Christopherson and his dog Archie

Photo: Robin Christopherson and his dog Archie  |  Image credit: AbilityNet 

Without tech and its awesome ability to include everyone in this digital world, I wouldn’t be Head of Digital Inclusion for such an excellent organisation as AbilityNet - and been able to play a small part in enabling others to also achieve their ambitions over these many years.

I know what you’re thinking; of course AbilityNet wouldn’t exist without tech.

So I need to be really clear; without the power of tech to include everyone I wouldn’t be in work at all.

I and millions of others wouldn’t stand a chance. But tech has given us so much more than an equal chance at a career – it’s given us all those things that YOU use tech for every day.

I may need to tweak my computer and smartphone to do the things you take for branted, but that’s where AbilityNet comes in.

More about our birthday 

Bank robbers, future tech and the importance of inclusive design

On Tuesday I spoke at the excellent Beyond Tellerrand conference in Munich, Germany. I spoke about being lucky in 2018, bank robbers, the future of tech and the importance of inclusive design.

My talk was called 'From AI to robots, from apps to wearables - let's design for everyone, ok?' It covered a broad range of technology and how important it is to ensure that the tech of tomorrow is inclusive. If we get the design right it can be used by everyone, regardless of disability, impairment or environment.

The organisers have been swift in getting the video up online and I'd love for you to watch it.

From AI to robots, from apps to wearables – let’s design for everyone, OK? - Robin Christopherson - btconfMUC2018 from beyond tellerrand on Vimeo.

Bank robbers and lemonade

So where do luck and bank robbers fit in? Well you’ll just have to watch it for the full story (hot tip - it's right at the beginning) but one significant message I'd like people to take away is that, in large part, we make our own luck. Whether it’s being caught in the crossfire in a bank robbery, or something as every day (but still exasperating) as dropping your phone, how we choose to view that event can make all the difference to our day, our week, our lives.

When it comes to people with disabilities, you’ll find that they are often the most grateful and positive people you’d be lucky to meet. When life serves you lemons, often the best approach is to make lemonade.

Embrace inclusive design and give people a fighting chance to have a truly lucky 2018

One word that used to be used for describing people with a disability was ‘handicapped’. I actually quite like this term. The better the racehorse, the bigger the handicap (additional weight added to slow them down and level the field) and the better the golfer, the greater the number of shots added to his or her score at the start of a round.

sticks of celery

The thing is that no matter how good a golfer you are, if instead of your set of golf clubs you’re given a stick of celery instead, then even Tiger Woods wouldn’t make it past the first hole. There are some handicaps you just can’t get over however positive your outlook is.

The same is true of inaccessible design.

If you have a disability and a website, app or piece of software that you need to use for work, education or pleasure is not inclusive, then you’re stuck. You’re out of luck. Some things are out of our control.

If, however, you’re a designer or developer working on websites, apps or even robots or AI, then it’s completely within your power to make them inclusive and to help build a future for everyone.

Related links

How contact lens computers could help those who are partially sighted see the future more clearly

It’s predicted that, by 2021, contact lens computers will be a reality. A recent patent and detailed tech-spec for such a device by Sony (see video below) shows how every element of a computer  – from a screen to a battery and even a camera – can be condensed down to fit in a contact lens. Such tech could be a real eye-opener for people with disabilities.

Sony has submitted a patent (including a detailed technical specification) for a ‘contact lens computer’. It fits over the eye and contains everything that you need for a fully-functional computer, as well as wi-fi, storage, a built-in camera and even a piezo-electrically-charged battery that happily keeps the miniscule micro-components powered simply by your natural eye-movements. The company predicts that it will be available as early as 2021.


Seeing the future clearly with contact lens computers

With a computer screen nestled on your eyeball and its image able to occupy your entire field of vision, the applications for both augmented reality and virtual reality are obvious. You can work and play wherever you are – using applications that either layer important information on top of the real world or else immerse you in another world of your choosing -  and without the need for any devices or power supply. For those with a vision impairment, however, this ability to see a virtual screen that is effectively so enormous as to fill what field of view you do have, has obvious benefits.

While larger and larger screens are available, for someone who is partially sighted, the further away those outer edges of monitor are, the harder they are to see. And there is also the obvious question of the cost for such massive monitors. This virtual view of a screen gets around those issues and affords the user much easier access to their computer and the internet.

How a contact lens computer works

Most computer monitors comprise a liquid crystal display (LCD) panel that contains millions of pixels that can change colour or block light altogether. Then there’s a backlight panel that shines through to light up each pixel so we can see the colours shine.

As we see in this quick DIY video on how to make a see-through screen, if we dismantle our monitor and take away that back panel then what we get is a transparent display through which we can see the world – as well as the information or images on our computer screen. If the world behind is a white wall, say, then it might look a little like a normal monitor.

In newer, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays that comprise pixels which produce their own light, the process is even easier. Here there is no back panel so all you need to do is remove the back of your monitor.

Making minute contact lens computers

Having a transparent display is a crucial part of making the concept of a contact lens-sized computer a reality. Obviously, there’s much more to a computer than simply the screen, but we are seeing a marked reduction in size of each and every element of a computer. We see those in the field taking complex circuit boards and several components such as memory and CPU etc and creating a minute ‘system on a chip’ and taking bulky battery and camera technology and making squeezin them into ever-thinner smartphones.

The ultimate head-mounted computer

Many tech companies are producing smart glasses that give you a similar ‘heads-up display’ (Vuzix glasses pictured below) . Here are the top five available on Amazon today, but having both a display that is in front of you wherever you look combined with a camera that is always looking where you are, will make these bulky unappealing gadgets of today look hopelessly out-of-date.

vuzix smart glasses

Such smart glasses with head-mounted cameras have many disability-specific applications - from using AI to read text or identify what objects a blind person is looking at, to highlighting (with a hi-vis outline) such objects to assist those with partial vision, to layering helpful info or icons on top of what someone with a learning difficulty sees when performing everyday tasks. Now these capabilities will be available with less inconvenience and, we hope, expense.

Gazing into the future

In a few short years there will no longer be people walking around looking down at mobile phones, oblivious to their surroundings, blundering into people, lamposts or on-coming traffic. People will instead be empty-handed and gazing blankly into the middle-distance. Whether they will see the wisdom of standing still while they view a screen that potentially takes up their whole field of vision… we’ll just have to wait and see.


How Image Recognition and AI is Transforming the Lives of Blind People

Microsoft Seeing AI - the best ever app for blind people just got even better


For advice and news on disability and tech, see abilitynet.org.uk


3 ways students can reduce stress and create better essays

Now the festivities are over it's time for us all to start thinking about the year ahead. For most students it's time to get to work. Whether you've got a thesis, dissertation or a simple report to write, these student apps will help to maximise productivity, reduce procrastination and even improve the eloquence of your writing.

1  Zotero 

This is particularly good for science students who need to reference, but good for anyone writing essays and thesis. Use it to collect, organise, speedily cite, and share your research sources. 

Get Zoreto here

See this useful short video guide for a Zoreto demo

student looking relaxed writing in cafe with hot drink

 2 Dragon Dictation

Dragon Dictate is a voice recognition app that listens to you speaking and automatically converts those words into digital written text. Obviously useful for essays, but you could also try it for capturing notes and ideas. If you have trouble getting your words down and prefer to speak, or are dyslexic or have trouble writing for physical reasons, this could ease the pressure. By allowing users to dictate a stream of thoughts and words, it takes the pressure off students who feel it’s difficult to put words on the page while thinking. 

Get Dragon Dictate for iOS, here

There’s a super quick demo of Dragon Dictation here

3  Evernote

A popular organisational tool, where you can keep different notes and subjects in order and in separate sections and add and subtract from them when you wish, syncing across your devices. Handily it’s also an audio recorder for lecturers or verbal notes and ideas. You can share notes with course mates too, but this might involve a charge. One extra really cool feature - scan and search - means that if you take pics of whiteboard content or handouts, you can search them using any of the words in the image, because Evernote recognises content within images. In addition, you can write or draw on those PDFs on screen. Try Trello too if you want a project management board where you can see your projects’ workflow really easily and clearly. 

Get Evernote here

Find out more about how Evernote could help you in this video

How tech can help disabled people: AbilityNet's top 10 blogs of 2017

AbilityNet's website saw more traffic than ever before in 2017. Here are the top 10 most viewed articles published last year. 

man wearing VR glasses in a mountain scene simulation

1 Virtual reality 
From trying out-of-reach experiences to aiding muscle recovery, we looked at 8 ways virtual reality could enhance the lives of disabled people 

2 iPad / iPhone settings and tremors
How the latest version of the software that drives iPads and iPhone (iOS10) offers significant improvements for people with tremors due to conditions such as Parkinsons, Cerebral Palsy or old age

3 Government and disability
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)'s Disability report says government has failed to support disabled people over the last 20 years. 

4 Windows 10 Fall Creator
The new accessibility features which came with Microsoft Windows Fall Creator update

5 AI and blind people
The artificial intelligence app which helps blind people hear the world

6 Dementia and digital design webinar 
Advice for developers on creating online services which are dementia friendly 

7 Robin's MBE
Our tech guru Robin Christopherson picks up a well deserved MBE for services to digital inclusion

8 BBC producer on life with dyslexia
Ed Booth opened up about his life, from struggles with dyslexia to writing top BBC programmes

9 Dementia-friendly websites
An AbilityNet accessibility consultant's top 6 tips for a dementia-friendly website

10 Microsoft's SEEING AI app
Robin, who is blind, blogs about the updates to Seeing AI. He was excited that it can now read colours and handwriting

What else was popular?