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Dr Scott Hollier on how voice technology is making the online world more accessible

Accessibility specialist Scott Hollier talks about the incredible potential of voice technology to improve lives.

Dr Scott Hollier has spent his working life seeking to make internet-related technologies more accessible to people with disabilities. Here, the specialist adviser, lecturer and speaker – and a legally blind person himself – talks about the incredible potential of voice technology to improve the lives of the blind and vision impaired.

The future has spoken: the new age of consumer living will be in voice-activated technology. It’s a prediction that has echoed across conference halls and website columns, and the certainty with which is it spoken is growing. An increasing number of brands are entering the space, talking directly to customers in their homes and from mobile devices – from the ABC to NAB, with the latter having just released their first financial assistant for Google Home.

For many individuals, voice-powered devices promise to make everyday activities easier and more convenient – whether that’s setting an alarm, streaming a radio program, or asking for the latest on a certain news item. And, while it’ll wear off in no time, there’s also the novelty of yelling in an empty house “Boil me a two-minute egg!” when you’re just two feet away from the stove.

Yet for another segment of consumers, voice-enabled technology is looking to be life-changing. In Australia, according to the latest data, there are around 357,000 people who are either blind or vision impaired. Here, accessibility specialist Dr Scott Hollier talks with Mahlab on how evolving voice tech is revolutionising accessibility for this group, while addressing issues over incompatibility that are vexing consumers everywhere.

A short history of accessible internet technology

The internet was founded upon the principle of sharing – where individuals, no matter where they were in the world, could retrieve information and interact through a network. For the blind, however, it would take decades to bring this liberal ideal closer to reality.

While screen magnifiers and screen readers were around in the internet’s early days, none of these features were integrated into computer technologies. Instead, blind people had to buy them as separate products, all at an incredibly prohibitive cost. It wasn’t until the United States updated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 with a new section in 1998 that it became mandatory for all devices sold to the US Federal government to have inbuilt accessibility. Drawing from the first Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), this legislation began the tech world’s momentum towards meaningful change.

“The idea was that this administration wanted to make sure that people with disabilities could actually work in government,” says Hollier. “This was the start.”

From this top-level ruling, dominant players like Apple and Microsoft began working to ensure their products were in compliance with the new codes. Even by the 2000s however, the accessibility features remained basic. “If you start Narrator in Windows XP,” recalls Hollier, “it gives you a message saying something like, ‘This screenreader isn’t great for blind people. If you want a good one, you should probably buy one.’ Microsoft were pretty upfront about the limitations.”

Competition was the goad towards improvement, along with the second WCAG guidelines release in 2008, which made it easier for developers to understand the technical requirements behind assistive technologies. In 2009, Apple broke ground with its new touchscreen in the iPhone 3GS (“up until that point, it was thought a blind person would never be able to use one,” says Hollier) and Windows 8, an infamous dud for sighted people, was a boon for the blind by virtue of its touch-based interface.

“Today, we now have fantastic range of options for people who are blind or vision impaired, whether it’s Mac, Windows, iOs or Android,” says Hollier. “We have built-in screen readers, magnifiers, high-contrast themes, and an ever-expanding list of options. Best of all: they’re free. What this represents is that people with blind or vision impairment not only have these built in, but they now have choice. They don’t have to buy the ‘blind person’s device’.”

The advent of voice-powered digital assistants

It was Siri that started us talking about voice. While a clever digital assistant at the time, she has since surpassed by the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft, who have stepped forward to sink ongoing time and investment into refining and expanding the capabilities of voice.

The result, for those like Hollier, is a technology that has “completely changed the landscape of what is possible”. As more brands integrate their services into home speakers and smart devices, they can render up useful, relevant content to these individuals who may have suffered incredible barriers and frustrations otherwise. Brands become ubiquitous, polite and invisible digital butlers, responding promptly to customer queries and requests.

It’s where voice converges with the Internet of Things that gets Hollier most excited – where intelligent connectivity is embedded in the most humble of home objects and controlled remotely by speech, from lights to ovens to refrigerators. Some devices you can even program to create Google recipes automatically, sighs Hollier happily – a self-described “lousy cook”.

“What we’re seeing now with Google Home and Amazon Echo are fundamental benefits for the blind and vision impaired – having a standalone digital assistant in their home,” he says. “On a phone, the digital assistant might be useful, but you can still use a screen reader to navigate and do whatever it is you need to do.” With voice, the change is more profound.

The frustrations of a messy market

For the most part, competition is a healthy thing. It places a check on monopolisation and price bloat, while compelling brands to improve on their products and services to make their offering the obvious choice. Yet when a service or product connects with an ecosystem of other services and products, competition can produce some detrimental effects for consumers. As Hollier points out, the struggle for market dominance in voice is restricting buyer choices, at times locking in the latent ‘intelligence’ of smart devices – making them dumb and their buyers flat out annoyed.

‘Interoperability’ is the official word to use here, which describes the ability of connected systems and software to talk to each other in information-sharing ways. While there are a few exceptions, most smart devices currently on the market are only compatible with just one branded system, the main ones being Google and Amazon. Their popularity is moreover incredibly fractured across regional markets, with Amazon’s Echo a giant in the United States, but not even available in Australia (not yet).

“Even now, there are products turning up in places like Bunnings that are imported from the US – smart lighting for example – which are only compatible with the Amazon Echo,” says Hollier. “This means that only those with an Echo can tap into the ‘smart object’ capability of the product. In Australia’s case, that rules out most of the population.”

An incredibly “messy” marketplace emerges – for manufacturers of smart devices and for consumers. It restricts the freedom of choice for all buyers, regardless of disability, and can lead to situations where buyers are forced to buy higher-priced alternatives because the cheaper option isn’t compatible with their owned home assistant.

“There’s nothing stopping someone with blind or vision impairment from having complete home automation,” says Scott, “except for the fact it’s a hodgepodge of what’s compatible with what, and who is dominating the market.”

Alongside other specialists, Hollier is part of a task force to develop a new accessibility standard for the age of interactive technology. Code-named ‘Silver’, the project is part of a planned major future revision to the WCAG guidelines, to eventually replace the new WCAG 2.1 version coming out next year.

Overcoming the problems of interoperability between smart systems and devices is, Hollier says, a high priority. While a self-confessed voice tech devotee, and acknowledging all the ways it has made his life easier, he believes a significant shift in thinking and architecture needs to happen before audiences across the board can truly benefit.

Gary Humphrys contributed to the writing of this article.

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