Why Amazon's Alexa Is 'Life Changing' for the Blind
BY JON KALISH 8 JAN 2018, 1 P.M.
For the blind, Amazon's Echo and Alexa is more than just neat technology; it's a lifeline.
Bill Boules, blind since birth, has three Amazon Echos at his home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and says they've been "life changing."
Boules, 42, bought the smart speaker as soon as it came out and found that right away it helped him more easily access audio content on the web. Previously, he had to use a screen reader, which is software that orally announces the contents of a web page.
"The Echo is definitely a game changer," Boules tells PCMag. "You can get the information much faster, at least 10 times faster."
Now, Boules begins his day by asking his Echo Dot£49.99 at Amazon to play the news from NPR and sports highlights from ESPN before heading to work as associate director of rehabilitation and re-integration at the Vision Center of Excellence, an office within the US Navy that assists members of the military and their families who have lost their eyesight. As part of his job, Boules helps clients install and use the Echo. His audio podcast on assistive technology, The AT Junkie, devoted three episodes to reviewing different models of the Echo.
Like other blind people, Boules says he "watches TV" even though he's only listening to it. Before he got an Echo, Boules depended on sighted family members to help him find something to watch on his cable TV's on-screen guide.
"I'm blind, I can't see the on-screen guide," says Boules. "But I can [access it] independently now. I no longer have to depend on someone else to help me find something to watch."
One thing that Boules still depends on sighted people to do is help him with wardrobe selection before he goes to work. Otherwise, he may show up at work and be informed by a co-worker, "Dude, you're wearing a striped tie with a checkered shirt again."
"Trying to figure out what goes with what, sometimes, if you're by yourself and you don't have anyone to say, 'Hey, don't wear that,' it can be a problem," Boules concedes.
But he thinks that the Echo Look, which includes a video camera and LED lighting, may be able to help blind people dress for work. The device uses machine-learning algorithms and advice from fashion specialists to offer feedback on wardrobe combinations. Amazon's motivation here is clearly to sell you clothes, but the unintended outcome may be a boon for blind workers.
"We want to look as presentable as anyone else," says Boules, "and technology like this has some potential to help with that."
Christina Brino has four Alexa devices at her home in Pompton Plains, NJ, including the battery-powered Amazon Tap, which she uses outside during the summer. Now retired, Brino once served as the coordinator of the Morris County Office for the Disabled. These days she volunteers at The Seeing Eyein Morristown, NJ, an institution that dates back to 1929 and was the first place in America that trained guide dogs for the blind.
Brino uses the calendar skill of her Echo to keep tabs of her schedule. She uses Echo to set timers when she cooks. There's a GrubHub skill for ordering meals delivered to her home and a PeaPod skill to get grocery deliveries from a local Stop 'N Shop store.
"You can realize you need something and say, 'Alexa, ask PeaPod.' And then I ask her for what I want and she just adds it to my cart," says Brino. "It'll tell you your delivery time if you schedule it."
Alexa makes phone calls for Brino, reads ebooks to her, plays Teen Jeopardy, and wakes her each morning with an alarm that uses the voice of Alec Baldwin.
If you think four Echos is a lot for one home, consider the case of Michael May and his wife. They have 10 Echos in the Seattle and Davis, California, homes they share. Both use them to add to their grocery list by talking to their Echos. May also uses it to summon Uber rides for himself and his guide dog Johnny; Echo is "huge in providing part of the equation that I need for independence," he says.
And independence has allowed him to flourish. May is the founder and owner of the Sendero Group, a company that makes accessibility products, like a talking barcode reader and GPS software for blind people. His career has included stints working for the CIA as a political risk analyst and automating cash machines for the Bank of California. Of the smart speaker's virtual assistant Alexa, he says, "She's so much a part of my life. I feel like I know her."
But Alexa, it turns out, wasn't always Alexa.
"The name we had for her was Amy," says Steven Tyler, a Brit who readily admits he has no connection whatsoever to the band Aerosmith. This Steven Tyler serves as director of assistive technology at Leonard Cheshire Disability, a group that supports disabled people around the world.
Tyler previously worked at the Royal National Institute of Blind People(RNIB). While he was there, the organization commissioned a Polish company, Ivona Software, to use its speech-to-text technology to "build voices" for use in providing access to newspapers and magazines for blind listeners. In addition to creating a voice with a Welsh English accent, Ivona developed a female voice named Amy, who became Alexa when Amazon acquired the company in 2013.
Tyler says the fact the Echo has proved to be a godsend for blind people is something the disability community should trumpet.
"Five years ago, Alexa would have definitely been an accessibility product. Today it's a mainstream product," says Tyler. "It just so happens the Echo ticks all the boxes around accessibility. And it's accessibility in spades!"
He notes that while some Echo skills, such as the one for TuneIn Radio and The Guardian newspaper, are well written, some skills expect you to know the magic words to trigger the skill.
"In a way, this is the dawning of a new interface where there is no recourse to a screen," says Tyler.
"But the flip side of that is that touch screens now are the enemy [of blind people]," says Jim Kutsch, president and CEO of The Seeing Eye. Kutsch and his wife Ginger, who are both visually impaired, have four Echos in their home; Kutsch has another one at the office.
Amazon donated 32 Echo Dots to The Seeing Eye, so when blind people come for three plus weeks to work with their new dogs, they have the chance to use the smart speaker in their dorm room. Between 250 and 275 blind people from all over the US and Canada come to The Seeing Eye each year, and in addition to their dog, they return home with a heightened sense of what computer technology can do for them. It's hard not to believe that, as Paul Simon sings in "The Boy in the Bubble," that "These are the days of miracle and wonder."