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Accessible Television: A Thing of the Future, Already a Thing of the Past

Posted on June 20, 2013

Panasonic's new range of Talking TVs promises accessible entertainment for persons who are blind and visually impaired. But how profitable or innovative is a product that targets only a single user base? David Fazio makes a case for inclusive design.

Panasonic has engineered accessible television sets called Talking Viera. They are widely available throughout Europe and Japan. The TV models offer accessibility to customers with visual impairments. Users can access onscreen information from the remote control that would otherwise only be available to the sighted. Channel names are spoken aloud. The systems use high-quality Nuance text-to-speech that Panasonic calls Voice Guidance. The onscreen program guide actually talks to you. DVR capable models enable recording with the press of a single dedicated button. Audio description tracks are just as easy to switch on and off.

"Audio description" or "video description" describes the visual aspects of scenes in the program. Around 69 television stations in the United Kingdom carry programming with audio description on a regular basis. Many of these stations offer as much as one-third of all programming delivered with audio description. UK officials have gone on record to say that “their people love television,” including those who are blind, and they get lots of it!

Voice Guidance

Voice guidance makes watching television easier for persons who are visually impaired - something that would otherwise require assistance from a sighted friend or family member. Voice guidance tells you which channel is on and speaks the menu, volume level and program.

This is where Panasonic’s innovation slows down. The amount of access that the electronics giant provides to viewers is excellent but there is no novelty in it. The features have limited marketability as they apply not to users of all abilities, but only to the blind or partially sighted. The accessibility mindset has handcuffed the ingenuity of Panasonic to basic usability functions for the visually impaired. So, what should they focus on? Let me get to that in a short bit.

Currently, Talking Viera “talks” to you if you arrow over to a specific item and click a button to access the selected item. Some impairments make using the remote control painful or impossible. Some viewers like to pay attention to the television while cooking, doing the dishes or multitasking in many other ways. That typically renders remote control use ineffective. Wet and soapy hands are hazardous to the remote. Carrying the control along with a rag and cleaning chemicals is frustrating. Your activities are likely to position you out of reach for the remote to even work. Many of us find comfort in the ambient noise of the television when we are alone or preoccupied.

Panasonic can redirect their focus toward inclusion and lead the organization to think bold. In that case, engineers and stakeholders will brainstorm what “experience” would be truly exceptional. Not just for the disability community, but for everyone. The design will strive not to separate individual user groups. The design will allow my visually impaired friend and me to watch programs together while he tunes in to the audio description on a wireless headset so not to disrupt my preference of watching TV without it. The available features will include individuals with any impairment, be it a disability or just lack of familiarity.

Apple’s voice-based technology, Siri, has captivated smartphone users the world over. It is fun, entertaining and practical. The application simplifies device access and functionality for users that are driving, users with manual dexterity impairments, the visually impaired, as well as users who aren’t terribly tech savvy. The entertaining value of the feature appeals to every market. A similar application embedded in the Talking Viera will allow every TV viewer to multitask and command the television at the same time. Viewers will be able to tune in to breaking news and listen while cooking or cleaning or even watching over their kids. The remote control will become a thing of the past. This television will grow to hold a greater value. Add in language options and transform the TV into a truly inclusive product.

A synergy with smartphones, WiFi and home alarm systems is also possible. Inclusion through harmony at work incorporates existing technologies to create a multipurpose device that has mass marketability while meeting the needs of everyone. It all begins when you consider designing products for users of all abilities.

Panasonic Talking TV

The current Panasonic TV line has 30 models. The television sets range in screen size from 32 to 65-inches, and in price from US$800-$6,300.

The company has encountered a major pitfall, however, as they consider unleashing the technology in the United States. The 30 or so accessible models offered by Panasonic do not function correctly in the U.S. market. Panasonic wants to provide accessible television to customers in the US. but the reality is quite perplexing from both an economic and technological standpoint. Cable boxes complicate the matter.

Onscreen menus in the U.S. are proprietary features owned and controlled by the programming providers. They are processed through the set-top-box rather than through the TV itself. The opposite is true of the U.K. and Japan. The Talking Viera television models will require major funding to adapt to the American infrastructure. The economic benefit to the business is perceived to be anything but attractive. Panasonic is still reeling from a $10 billion loss in early 2012 that has significantly constrained the company from funding new innovations and taking on any kind of market uncertainty.

Voice guidance has a limited appeal to viewers without visual impairments. Thus, the increase in sales due to this innovation is equally limited. Any design with accessibility in mind is somewhat limited, but holds the potential to make more progressive strides. The discord in harmony between the cable providers and television manufacturer is being fine tuned to enable this feature for visually impaired Americans. It is up to both industries to put this harmony to work and step ahead of the curve toward more innovative possibilities.