Technability: Integrated Voice Controls Still Lacking

TechnoNEWAll of us with a physical disability have gone through some amount of customization, retrofitting, or remodeling to make our house, condo, or apartment a bit easier to navigate from a chair. I was personally lucky to get some assistance from a local homebuilders foundation that helped make my home accessible after my injury in 2005. I was extremely appreciative of their efforts after spending several months at my dad’s house showering on the back deck. Ramps, lifts, roll-in showers and electric doors are the basics to make a home accessible, but often other types of automated controls are needed to allow one to be independent. Unfortunately, even with all the technology available today, home automation for people with disabilities is still woefully lacking.

Very few fully integrated control systems exist, and those that do are extremely expensive. It is possible to find systems that integrate media and environmental controls into consumer smart phones and tablets, but few voice-activated control systems exist, and most don’t work nearly as well as similar consumer products like Apple’s Siri — which will be available on the new iPad when iOS 6 is released. This, of course, has everything to do with economics. The percentage of the population that would use such systems is a fraction of a percent, so designing systems from scratch just isn’t profitable.

I’m very excited about a new project close to my hometown called the Universal Design Home (wchuniversalhome.com) — a collaboration between Wall Custom Homes and Craig Hospital. They are building the home for Patrick Hawn, who rehabbed at Craig Hospital after sustaining a spinal cord injury in 1984. The project is exciting because it combines environmental sustainability with accessibility features meant to increase independence.

The concept of building an accessible home from the ground up is out of financial reach for most of us, but this project has potential to produce insight and innovation that will be widely beneficial for those trying to remodel an existing home for accessibility. More dialogue about accessibility between builders, vendors and the disability community should produce designs and innovations that are affordable. That being said, the home automation being included appears to still require physical manipulation. That is a great solution for those with some hand and arm function, but for high-level quadriplegics looking for an affordable integrated voice control system, there doesn’t appear to be anything new on the horizon.

I recently received an e-mail from a reader, Brian, asking for voice-activated home phone solutions. He is currently using the Able Phone 7000VA. The current version is the 7000VC, which is fully voice-controlled, but retails for $579 and isn’t integrated with any other home controls. Most cell phones have one or more solutions for voice-activated dialing, but all that I know of require pressing a physical button to activate. So, while we wait for Apple or some other tech behemoth to produce fully integrated and voice-activated home and media controls, please shoot me an e-mail if you have solutions I can pass on to Brian.

I am continually encouraged by the innovation coming from mobile application developers. Vlingo is a good free application for speaking commands such as calling contacts, updating Twitter, and asking for the weather. It doesn’t talk back either, so all of the feedback must be read from the screen. It does still require a great deal of physical interaction, but the company was recently purchased by Nuance (makers of Dragon NaturallySpeaking), which will hopefully bring some research dollars and continue to push the application forward.

Speaktoit is a Siri clone available for Android users and iPhone users. For those with an iPhone that does not support Siri, Speaktoit is a decent alternative, but again it still requires quite a bit of physical interaction with the screen. It does talk back to you and has a customizable avatar — if you’re ready to give up on actual people for good.

All the pieces are in place for voice technology to become more integrated in our daily lives. If it is something being used by the masses, solutions tailored to the physically disabled will come much more quickly. Vendors still seem reluctant to remove the requirement for a physical button to press on many devices. On mobile devices this is understandable because having the microphone constantly listening for commands would drain the battery, but for home solutions I think the hurdle has more to do with the human psyche. Without going too deep into psychology (which I can’t, anyway, because I have had exactly one course in my life on the subject), I think this boils down to Hollywood being a bit too realistic in their depictions of the Terminator and Matrix series. I, for one, welcome our robotic overlords.

As always, send me your thoughts, comments, and questions to Justin.Moninger@Gmail.com.

Resources
blog.vlingo.com/press-releases
speaktoit.com/index.html
wchuniversalhome.com
• khosack@craighospital.org (Kenny is the Craig PR director)
apple.com/pr/products/iphone/iphone.html (Siri is third image from left).

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