AbilityNet Accessibility Award: Bristol Braille Technology
Bristol Braille Technology is building a revolutionary and radically affordable Braille e-reader for blind people called Canute, designed with and by the blind community. The Canute is the world’s first multiple line Braille e-reader, forty characters per line by nine lines, and it will be affordable too. They want to be able to sell it for the price of a Perkins typewriter or iPhone. This would make it 20 times cheaper than existing digital Braille devices.
My first hands-on use of connected devices has opened my eyes to the impact that smarter more connected homes will have on the lives of people with disabilities – as well as everyone else. Combining the new age of ambient computing represented by Alexa, Google Home and the soon-to-be-released Apple HomePod with smart, connected, devices offers a sense of independence that was sci-fi fantasy until a few short months ago.
What happens when you give Alexa the skills to affect the physical world?
Smart, connected devices (also known as IOT or the ‘Internet of things’) are nothing new, but it took a first-hand experience to really drive home to me the impact these devices could have for people with disabilities.
I looked at a smart power plug that can be remotely turned on and off by your phone or Alexa, as well as a smart colourful lightbulb:
- The smart Wi-Fi Plug by Wasserstein’ costs £16.99 on Amazon and looks like your typical power-breaker – you plug it into the wall and plug into it whatever it is you wish to make smart.
- The Smart Home LED Lightbulb (16m colours) is on Amazon for £17.49 and looks like a larger-than-life bulb with a standard screw fitting.
Setting up IOT devices involves a few steps and sometimes a little frustration.
Step 1 is to connect your phone to the devices by downloading the associated app and using it to create a temporary wi-fi network. You can then communicate with the devices - which have no screen or other interface - and give them permission to connect to the real wi-fi network in your home.
Once this little dance is done (and it took a couple of attempts to enable it) then you can control the devices through the app. In the case of the smart bulb you can turn it on and off, change it to any number of colours (well, 16 million in fact), dim or brighten it and make it pulse like a disco light in time to music.
In the case of the smart plug it simply lets power through to the device that is plugged into it like a remote on-off switch. On the day of testing the news said it was hotter in Warwick than in in Marrakesh and Majorca - so we hooked up a fan.
The devices, once set up, were an absolute pleasure to use – if you can use the apps, that is.
Smart apps - but ignorant of accessibility
Both the apps needed to set up these devices (‘Magic Home’ for the plug and ‘Wasserstein’ for the bulb) are completely inaccessible to me as a blind VoiceOver user.
Their functionality, comprising a number of buttons and sliders, would have been easy to make inclusive and this has been fed back to the developers. At the time of writing, however, these apps are strictly out-of-bounds to anyone with accessibility needs.
Adding Alexa to the mix
Echo to the rescue. By searching for the associated ‘skill’ (these are like apps for the Echo) and linking them to your device you are instantly able to control your smart devices by voice through Alexa.
Of course if you can’t speak then this option isn’t for you, but for anyone who finds the apps problematic (like me) this is magic. It’s just like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. And if all you have is your voice - for example I’m thinking of my sister here who is both blind and has very advanced Multiple Sclerosis - then sci-fi fun becomes serious functionality.
Combining the new age of ambient computing represented by Alexa, the Google Home and the soon-to-be-released Apple HomePod with smart, connected, devices is opening up options for independence that were sci-fi fantasy until a few short months ago.
The age of automation
As if being able to control various appliances around your home, either by the tap of a finger on glass, or by the casual thrown voice command in the general direction of your favourite home assistant, wasn’t cool enough you can considerably augment your available options by adding in a bit of automation.
IFTTT - short for If This Then That - is a free and very popular system that helps connect a myriad of possible triggers and potential actions, and can also be used to voice-enable many devices and services other than your connected IOT gadgets.
You can then define a specific voice command and set it as the trigger for your Echo or Google Home. The resulting action (or actions) could be trivial but fun – such as adding what is currently playing on the Echo to a Spotify playlist or asking Alexa to ring your phone as you wander aimlessly around the house. Or they could be something potentially life-changing - such as sending an emergency call, text or email alerting someone when you are in distress, are having an attack.
If the extensive built-in features of the Echo and the thousands of additional available skills aren’t already enough, then the fantastic functions offered by IFTTT can take you well and truly into the age of automated, ambient computing.