How does the Amazon Echo help people with a vision impairment?

Post date: 
Thursday, 6 April 2017
Amazon Echo Dot

Virtual Assistants such as Siri and Cortana who respond to audible commands have been in our phones for a while, but the standalone Amazon Echo gadget heralds the arrival of a new type of device that could be of enormous benefit to many people - in particular, people who have a vision impairment.

 
The Amazon Echo has been on sale in the UK since October 2016. In December, Robin Christopherson MBE, Head of  Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, was given the Echo Dot (a mini version of the Amazon Echo) for his birthday. Find out what Robin thinks of the new button-free, hands-free and eye-free gadget.
 
The Echo is a black column around fifteen inches tall and four inches wide. At around an inch thick, the Amazon Echo Dot is exactly the same as the normal Amazon Echo but with the bottom 90 per cent of the shiny black column (comprising the big bassy speaker) lopped off. The Dot may be smaller, but it still has a great-sounding speaker in there (and it can also be connected via a cable or Bluetooth to a beefier speaker if you wish for a bigger sound) and is a snip at £50 compared to the standard Echo price-tag of £150.
 
There is no screen and the Echo is permanently on. You just talk to the air and the Echo’s voice, known as ‘Alexa’, responds. There are a couple of buttons on the top but these are really never used day-to-day. 
 
What can the Amazon Echo do?
 
It’s probably easier to ask what the Echo can’t do. All you have to do is start your instruction by saying “Alexa” before your question or request. For example, “Alexa, play me a Queen song” or “Alexa, order me some more Toilet Duck” and within a trice you’re listening to your favourite tunes or running to the door. Well ok, perhaps deliveries aren’t that instantaneous but with next-day delivery it’s almost that quick.
 
Seven things a blind person can ask their Amazon Echo
 
As a blind person the Amazon Echo offers loads of useful functions - my current favourite requests are:
  • News: “Alexa, give me the news” - and the news and sports summary you'll hear is updated every hour
  • Facts: “Alexa, how tall is the Queen?” or “Alexa, tell me a random fact”
  • Jokes: “Alexa, tell me a joke” and “Alexa, tell me another one”
  • Timers and alarms: “Alexa, set a timer for three minutes” or “Alexa, wake me up tomorrow at 7am”
  • Radio: “Alexa, play Radio 4 Extra on TuneIn” or “Alexa, play The Prairie Home Companion station on TuneIn”
  • Podcasts: “Alexa, play This Week in Tech on TuneIn” or “Alexa, play 99 per cent Invisible on TuneIn”
  • Books: “Alexa, play Ready Player One on Audible” or “Alexa, play my book" to resume listening.

Adding Skills to Amazon Echo

Several thousand ‘skills’ are available to Alexa – these are like apps you can enable to give her added abilities. For example you can ask “Alexa, enable the National Rail skill” to be able to plan train journeys and get information on delays. Skills can be searched for and enabled through the Alexa app on iPhone or Android mobiles but can also be enabled through the Echo itself. Just say "Alexa, enable the Coffee Chef skill". 
 
If you say, “Alexa, enable the Birdsong skill” the Echo will play you any bird’s song or test you to see if you can guess a mystery song - so although you can’t check Twitter on the Echo yet you can check your tweets (sorry, I couldn’t help making that joke).
 
Use your Amazon Echo to control appliances in the home
 
You can also control other smart devices such as the Philips Hue lights, the Nest thermostat and your Sonos wifi speakers. And if you want to control any electrical device around the house by your voice alone, you can buy a simple wifi-enabled switchbox.
 
Plug the switchbox into the wall and then plug into it the device that isn’t itself ‘smart’ and you will be able to turn it on and off with a command to your Echo.
 
How can the Amazon Echo help people with disabilities?
 
Whilst all of the above is fantastic fun for everyone, the applications for people with disabilities are obvious. Anyone who struggles with technology or physically controlling their environment would benefit from the Echo (or cute little Echo Dot) so long as they are able to speak and hear well enough.
 
How can Amazon Echo help with medical appointments?
 
The Echo can remind you to take your tablets - just ask Alexa to set any number of alarms on a daily, weekday or weekend basis. You can also add appointments to your calendar so you won't miss another dentist or doctor's appointment. However, at present, it won't give you a reminder to attend those appointments so I find it best to ask over breakfast "Alexa - what am I doing today?" or "What are my appointments next Tuesday?".
 
Does the Amazon Echo work with artificial voices?
 
Finally, I have tested my Amazon Echo Dot with synthetic speech and yes it works just fine. I used VoiceOver on my phone to speak out commands to the Echo and Alexa understood every word.
 
This means that someone using a communication aid, like Professor Hawking, would also be able to use it without difficulty. You don’t even need to have good speech to use the Amazon Echo.
 

Could the Echo replace Smartphones?

 
The Amazon Echo certainly doesn’t replace a computer or smartphone but it can already do so much to help with everyday tasks and queries, and new skills are being added every day. And it isn't just for the tech-confident; for someone who doesn't have a computer or smartphone, and perhaps wouldn't ever want one, a quick set-up of the Echo by a friend or family member means that they too can enjoy its usefulness without ever needing to 'get to grips with computers'.
 
Final thoughts
 

Richard Godley, Team Leader of RNIB’s Advice Service, reminds us that caution should be exercised when using voice-activated gadgets especially as a blind or partially sighted person. “One of the main issues is that when the user asks Alexa a question, the Echo uses Google or another search engine to source the answer and often, the first few results are bought by companies who pay to have their websites displayed at the top of the results page. In reality, expensive goods or services or “fake news” may be relayed at the top, thus relayed to the Echo user as fact or as the best commercial option available and users may not ask hear the second or third result from Google to compare it to.”

 

Paul Porter, Technology For Life Team Manager at RNIB, said: “Products such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and RNIB In Your Pocket have taken voice recognition to a new level. It is true, if you search for something on Google, the results will be skewed by advertising. However, as the technology improves and gadgets get better at sifting through what has been paid for and what is organic, I'm sure companies will want to be included.” Paul added, “Anyone using an internet device needs to be mindful of pitfalls and scams. Given that voice activation is so good now users shouldn't be afraid to use it. You could even say the same of any technology that uses the internet.”

Further information
 
If you'd like more information or advice about whether to buy the Amazon Echo, contact the RNIB Technology For Life Team by emailing [email protected] or call the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999.
 
AbilityNet is the UK charity that helps disabled people including those with sight loss to use computers and the internet by adapting and adjusting their devices. For more information, advice or guidance from Robin, please feel free to call 0800 269545 or email [email protected].  Watch a film of Robin speaking about technology.
Read other blog written by Robin Christopherson:
 
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