There has been great interest in the Amazon Echo since it has been launched and the Echo can do many things out of the box when it is set up such as set timers and alarms and play radio stations. It is also possible to extend the functionality of the Amazon Echo by enabling its skills. There are thousands of these, but many are experimental so I thought I’d suggest a few that are really useful. Here are 3 skills that I have found useful or entertaining.
‘My Talking Newspaper’ skill. This is a skill that lets you listen to local talking newspapers that are available in the UK. It also lets you listen to the Infosound magazine, the Dot to Dot podcast which has hundreds of reviews of skills and RNIB Connect radio. To enable it say “Alexa, enable My Talking Newspaper skill” after this to use the skill say “Alexa, open My Talking Newspaper”.
‘The Daily Log’ skill allows you to make notes with your voice. You just speak the note such as “Here is John Smith’s phone number. It’s 02073331333”. You can then use your voice to search for John Smith once the skill is open by saying “Search for John Smith”. You can search for recordings on a particular day or for particular words. This is a powerful skill, particularly for recording notes longer than a sentence or so. To enable it say “Alexa, enable Daily Log Skill” then to use it after that say “Alexa, open Daily Log”.
The third skill I want to highlight is called ‘Path of Discovery: Europa’. It’s an interactive Sci-Fi game. This skill demonstrates great use of sound effects to enrich the experience of using the Amazon Echo. The tasks are not too hard and there is plenty of help through the game. So even if Sci-Fi is not your thing, this skill is worth giving a go just for fun! Like all the skills mentioned here, it’s free so there’s nothing to lose. To enable it say “Alexa, enable Path of Discovery: Europa” and then to open it say “Alexa, open Path of Discovery: Europa”.
I have written a full review about the Amazon Echo Dot in my previous blog post. You can read it here: http://bit.ly/2o8uHoW
Lastly, if anyone has come across Amazon Echo skills that they find useful, feel free to tell us by leaving a comment below.
As the Assistive Technology Advisor at ELVis I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.
In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.
Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. I will cover Television in my next blog entry.
In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.
Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than there used to be and some even have no DJs so song titles and artists are never announced.
In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales and manufacturing ceased some years ago.
Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display and this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.
For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.
The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.
I have recently being demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The amazon Echo is available for £50 or £150 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129.
Manufacturers such as Apple are also bringing out high-end smart assistants so there is likely to be increased choice in this field over time.
Devices such as the Victor Stream available from www.humanware.com also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £250.
Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund at www.blind.org.uk they offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.
So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are useable by a blind person with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.
Listen to Graham talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about accessible radios.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of trialling out smart glasses, which are being developed by technology company OxSight.
Partial sight is required in order to benefit from wearing the glasses. I live with an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which means I have no useful vision in one eye and less than 1% in the other eye, in addition to also having Cataracts in this eye. Therefore, I was in doubt whether the glasses would work for me.
However, after a quick demonstration on how to use them, I tried them on and I immediately noticed the massive difference wearing the glasses made to my vision. I was able to see my surroundings, including a television screen, and a man walking into the room and sitting in the chair opposite from me. Also, wearing the glasses outside, I could see the contrasting colours of the pavement and roads. I even noticed some people whizzing past on bikes, as well as identify lampposts which I wouldn’t normally see unless they were detected by my cane.
I was very ecstatic and thrilled that the glasses could help me see again. Moreover, I felt delighted to be able to see my wall clock at home, which I haven’t done in over 4 years when my vision began to rapidly deteriorate.
In my honest opinion, I believe these glasses will greatly assist partially sighted people. These glasses have various settings to cater to different visual impairments. For example, changing the colours to black and white, or switching to use inverted colours. However, the glasses are slightly heavy, and you do feel the weight if you were to wear them all day. Also, the battery pack which is attached to the glasses overheats quickly.
Other slight issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the final model, are firstly, it is difficult to use when reading printed material as text appears blurry. And secondly, if you’re looking at a group of people, the glasses sees one very large person instead.
Overall, the glasses do take some getting used to, but they are a great help. I’m looking forward to trialling them out in social environments, like walking to my local shop and navigating through the aisles and seeing if I can identify products. I’m also really interested to try them whilst trying to make a cup of tea with them and other daily tasks.
Check out the video below where you can see me trialling the glasses!
For more updates and to follow my journey using these glasses, please visit my Facebook page ‘RP Awareness & Fundraisers’ by Bhavini Makwana by clicking on the link below. Thanks!
Every now and again, smart devices are introduced without needing modification for vision impaired people to use because they function by using other senses. An example of this is the smart speaker/voice assistant. Smart speakers are screenless and can only be activated by voice.
A smart speaker which I highly recommend using is the Amazon Echo Dot, which is a speaker with a microphone that connects to the Internet. You use your voice to speak to the device and Alexa, the voice assistant, will talk back to you.
The range of skills Alexa has includes:
Finding out the current time
Setting timers and alarms
Playing radio stations
Getting a local weather forecast
Controlling lights, mains plugs with timers and other smart home devices
Planning journeys on public transport
Creating to do lists and calendars
And much more!
Before you can use the Echo Dot it requires setting up, which you will only ever need to do once. You will need a smartphone, tablet or computer connected to the internet in order to link the Echo Dot to your Amazon account. If you don’t have an Amazon account you will need to sign up on the Amazon website prior to setting up. After you’ve completed the setup process you’re ready to use the Echo Dot.
As a blind person the Echo Dot has been extremely useful in assisting me with my daily routine. I’m surprised at how much I use the device to perform the aforementioned skills, as it is a lot quicker to use voice commands than using my computer, even though I am a competent computer user.
The Echo Dot costs £50 on the Amazon UK website, although Amazon has regular sales so you can probably buy it for less. It is also available as the Amazon Echo with a bigger speaker which costs £150. Moreover, Google has recently launched its own smart speaker called Google Home with voice control. Both products can be purchased online but are also available at retailers like PC World and John Lewis.
In conclusion, smart speakers are beneficial for vision impaired people, however I recommend that you research thoroughly which product is able to meet your needs before buying one.
Here is a YouTube video demonstrating the Amazon Echo which is definitely worth watching!