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SANDY — Like most people, Tom Wlodkowski enjoys watching television with his family, including everything from network and cable shows to movies and sporting events.
But unlike most people viewing the programming, he can’t actually see what is on the screen.
Blind since birth, Wlodkowski is the vice president of Accessibility for Comcast Cable. On Wednesday, he demonstrated a new technology the company has developed that is designed to bring a “fuller” experience to viewers with diminished sight capacity or unable to see at all.
Due for release early next year, Comcast recently announced the industry’s first voice-enabled television interface — the X1 TV Entertainment Operating System — a “talking TV guide” solution aimed at helping visually impaired customers navigate the providers various programming options.
In the coming weeks, customers will be able to hear channel names and numbers, time slots and program details read aloud from their TV, Wlodkowski explained. Tasks that many people take for granted like programming the DVR or choosing what movie to rent will be easier for people with a vision or reading disability, he said.
"Until the talking guide, all I could do as a blind person was use channel up and channel down to navigate the thousand-channel universe — a hunt-and-peck model,” he said. “It’s a cloud-based system, which means that everything is processed on the network, not on software in the (cable) box.”
Through the remote control, the system offers a number of key features — including accessibility settings, closed caption options, video descriptions and voice guidance — that provide voice-enabled direction for navigation of all the system’s elements, as well as a secondary voice feature that describes in detail some of the nonverbal queues that are occurring on-screen.
(Television) is part of our pop culture. It's what is talked about at the office or at the gym. The ability for someone who is blind to participate in those conversations can often be the difference between being included or being left off to the side.
–Tom Wlodkowski, Comcast
Wlodkowski said the power of TV is universal. While there is a myth that persists that people with visual impairments do not watch television, the development of this technology is meant to dispel that misnomer, he said.
“People who are visually impaired watch as much TV as anyone who is sighted,” he said.
It has become one of the most culturally important forms of communication in today’s society, and being able to access it is really empowering, Wlodkowski said.
“(Television) is part of our pop culture. It’s what is talked about at the office or at the gym,” he said. “The ability for someone who is blind to participate in those conversations can often be the difference between being included or being left off to the side.”
TV is also a source of news and information, Wlodkowski added, and having ready access to it brings that awareness forward.
The company is currently conducting a 20-customer trial to help determine what features will best serve interested subscribers. When the X1 system is officially launched in a few weeks, it will be offered as a free service to customers, he explained.
For now, the voice service will only be offered in English, though a Spanish-language version is on the horizon with other language choices likely to come in the future as demand dictates, Wlodkowski noted.