U.S. Army veteran James Baldwin was injured in the Gulf War and now has one prosthetic eye and limited sight in the other. Baldwin has been able to “watch” his favorite TV shows using described content offered by his cable provider, Comcast. But now Baldwin, as he demonstrates in a Comcast video, really can watch them using a virtual reality option the cable company rolled out in December.
Individuals like Baldwin have found expanded entertainment options – and gained independence – in recent years because of cable’s investments in innovative technology. As a result, cable’s products and services can be enjoyed by almost everyone.
Says Charlie Herrin, executive vice president and chief product officer for Comcast, in the company’s 2020 Values report, “We prioritize accessibility because we build great experiences for all of our customers. It’s a business imperative. An estimated one-third of all U.S. households include someone with a disability. We don’t want to create exciting new products, only to tell certain communities and audiences that these experiences aren’t available to them.”
More than 40 million Americans have some type of disability, with almost half of those having either a hearing or vision impairment, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Accessibility has become an intentional focus for cable companies.
Charter Spectrum has created a Spectrum Accessibility Center of Excellence “to create empowering and inclusive experiences for our customers and employees.”
“Accessibility options for our customers with disabilities is a priority for Charter,” said Peter Brown, Charter’s Group Vice President of Design, in a press release. “Our accessibility team – many of whom have a disability – are focused on creating an inclusive line of services that provide solutions for everyone. Their experience and expertise guides what we are doing to make our products work for all customers.”
More than eight years ago, Comcast developed an accessibility program that includes engineers and subject matter experts who ensure that inclusivity is included in product design from the earliest stages. The program is led by Tom Wlodkowski, vice president, accessibility and multicultural – technology and product at Comcast, who himself is blind.
Comcast recently estimated that 2 million of its customers use an accessibility option through Xfinity X1, its TV and entertainment service.
Wlodkowski and members of Comcast’s product experience team recent demonstrated the company’s variety of product enhancements and services available for people disabilities – and everyone – during the Texas Tribune’s recent Trib Fest. You can watch the panel on accessibility and the demo here.
Here’s a roundup of some of the accessibility options offered by Texas Cable Association members – Altice USA (parent company of Suddenlink), Charter Spectrum, Comcast, Sparklight and Vyve Broadband.
Charter Communications in May launched Spectrum Access, a free app designed to provide entertainment access to persons with vision or hearing impairments. It is available for use even by those who are not Spectrum subscribers.
The app works with a movie playing on any platform, whether it’s a DVD or a streaming service. It allows customers to play audio description or closed captioning directly from their phone or tablet, through speakers or ear buds. That means everyone in the room can watch a movie or show, but not everyone has to hear the audio description. It even allows a user to auto-sync the audio description in the middle of a program.
In addition to supporting movies, Spectrum Access recently expanded its library of supported content to include TV shows (beginning with Spectrum Originals). It also began offering audio description and movie audio tracks that have been translated into Spanish.
Spectrum Guide Narration recites on-screen text and provides audible guidance for easy access to TV menus, DVR, on-demand shows and movies. Other Charter Spectrum offerings for visually-impaired customers include Virtual Assistant, Call Us, Braille, Pay Your Bill, Large Button Remotes, VIP Ringing and more.
As mentioned earlier, U.S. Army veteran James Baldwin is benefitting from a partnership Comcast announced in December with NuEyes to bring the Xfinity Stream viewing experience to visually impaired customers through NuEyes virtual reality technology. The virtual reality technology enhances the usable vision of a person who is visually impaired.
Comcast’s foray into accessible technology stretches back to November 2014, when it launched the industry’s first “talking TV guide.” The guide features a voice that reads aloud selections like program titles, network names and time slots as well as DVR and On Demand settings. Six months later, the company unveiled a new remote control that allowed customers to navigate with their voice – an option that helps not only those with vision impairments, but also physical disabilities.
Altice USA, which provides Suddenlink Services in Texas, also has a “talking remote” to help the vision impaired make the most of their Suddenlink video services. The remote’s voice guidance option “speaks” what’s on the screen, including navigational instructions and program descriptions. Customers also can use voice commands to tune to a channel, search for shows, enable closed captioning and more with just the sound of their voice. The voice command option also is useful for those with a physical disability.
Vyve Broadband also provides navigation options for subscribers with sight impairments, including an audio talking guide, video description and a remote control with accessible functions. These features provide audio descriptions that help customers to decide what programs to watch and make it easier for blind or visually impaired customers to change channels, search for programming and enable closed captioning, among other things.
For its customers who need vision assistance, Sparklight has partnered with TiVo to offer our customers the TiVo Bolt, which provides additional functions that include an audio guide and video description of the programs being watched.
Closed captioning remains a useful, if low tech, service widely offered by cable and other video providers. Again, though, cable innovation has gone beyond this basic service.
Charter Spectrum customers can see incoming and missed Spectrum Voice phone calls on their TV screen with Caller ID on TV, and get both an audio file and a text transcription of a voice mail emailed to them.
Altice USA also provides Caller ID on TV and allows subscribers to receive their voicemail messages via email.
For hearing impaired Comcast customers looking for assistance, Comcast partnered with Connect Direct, a subsidiary of Communication Service for the Deaf, in December to become the first cable company to offer customer service in American Sign Language.
Physical disability options
Comcast in May 2015 unveiled a new remote control that allowed customers to navigate with their voice, as mentioned earlier.
Fast forward to June 2019, when Comcast introduced Xfinity X1 eye control which gives customers a physical disability use their eyes to navigate their TV, change the channel, set a recording or search for a show. They also can use their gaze to type out voice commands, such as to watch a specific channel. Xfinity X1 eye control is a web-based remote for tablets and computers that works seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software, Sip-and-Puff switches and other assistive technologies.
The eye control feature was named to Time Magazine’s List of the 100 Best Inventions of 2019.
As mentioned previously, Altice USA’s voice command option on its remote control is also a tool to allow those with a physical disability get the most out of their entertainment options such as finding their favorite shows, changing the channel, opening apps and more.