Accessibility highlights from the Consumer Electronics Show

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Tuesday, 14 January 2014 11:19am

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was held last week in Las Vegas, revealing a number of interesting new products that are likely to turn up in our stores in the months to come. Here are some of the main themes this year and their accessibility implications.

Interactive home appliances

With Panasonic introducing its accessible talking TV last year, LG is aiming to go one better, this year introducing a range of interactive home appliances.

This new ‘HomeChat’ technology allows appliances to respond to texts or talk to a device to give it instructions, and the device in turn talks back, updating you on its progress. For example, asking the washing machine where it is up to could result in the washing machine sending a text message saying it’s nearly finished, or asking the fridge about its supply of soft drink may result in the fridge stating “There’s four cans left.” With other big names such as Samsung also displaying their smart home devices, this is set to be one of the key tech trends in 2014.

For people with disabilities, particularly in relation to vision and cognitive disabilities, not needing to master controls on an appliance but instead simply speaking to it or receiving text updates on an accessible device could significantly increase their independence.

Wearable technology

The progress towards wearable technologies continues in 2014 with the CES highlighting a number of smartwatch updates and a few new health monitoring products.

Pebble launched the latest version of its original smartwatch, Steel,  and has promised that an app store for it will be launching shortly. Other major companies including Qualcomm, Sony, and Samsung have also developed smartwatches, with their current models also showcased at CES. There’s also a Wellness Watch and LG’s fitness strap which provide important health monitoring information about the wearer’s body in real time.

The smartwatches currently on offer are unfortunately not very accessible to date, with Pebble using its own locked-down software and the others using versions of Android too heavily customised to use existing Android accessibility features. However, the growing popularity of wearable technologies based on Android means it is likely we will see accessible versions of these products in the not-too-distant future.

Smart TVs

The new models of TV mark a few changes in technology. With the official death of the Plasma TV, the big name companies such as Panasonic, Sony, LG and Samsung are all looking at either the lower-cost LED LCD or the high-end OLED. With TVs ever-increasing in size, the resolution of the screen is moving up with TVs fearing Ultra HD, or 4K resolution, replacing the current Full HD 1080p currently available in most new TVs.

With an increase in size and resolution, several manufacturers have included the option in their TVs to make them curved so that you can literally wrap the TV around you to give a more immersive experience.

In relation to accessibility, the inclusion of text-to-speech in one range of Panasonic’s  TVs last year was a welcome addition, but many of the new features in TVs are not such a giant leap that they will encourage people to replace their TVs. There is very little content currently available in 4K as the most popular high definition video format, Blu-Ray, only supports the current 1080p resolution. The clarity and brightness of the new OLED technology TVs may be helpful to some people with low vision, but the TVs are likely to cost 4 to 5 times that of a comparable LED LCD TV.

New ways to play games

While both Microsoft and Sony released their new game consoles towards the end of last year, several announcements at CES have shaken up the gaming world, including the PlayStation Now service which allows you to play older PlayStation games without a PlayStation console. Using the cloud service, games are streamed to either a new PlayStation or compatible TV, phone or tablet. Another product released is the Steam Machine which allows PC games to be streamed onto a TV, and there are a number of affordable Android-based consoles such as the Snakebyte Vyper tablet which can be used as a handheld console or connected to a TV for a full console gaming experience.

While accessible gaming appears to have initially taken a step back with AbleGamers issuing a warning about both the new Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles due to accessibility concerns, the move to cloud gaming may provide more opportunities for people to use a range of accessible devices to interact with their games. In addition, cheaper Android-based consoles may provide an opportunity in the future for games to incorporate Android’s accessibility features.

More Android tablets

With Apple generally not participating in CES events, other manufacturers have used the platform to steal some limelight and showcase their latest tablets. The general trends appear to be increasing screen size and more ‘phablet’ devices now that the screen size of phones and tablets are becoming so similar.

With Android 4.4 KitKat now rolling out to devices such as the affordable Moto G, it’s likely we’ll continue to see the growing trend of accessibility and affordability joining together this year.

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