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Inaccessible white goods

Jackie Brown wants better access to white goods, and Robin Christopherson suggests smart solutions that may help some blind people. Tom Walker visits a new IT hub in Worcester.

News, views and information for people who are blind or partially sighted. Jackie Brown wants better access to domestic white goods, which don't require sighted help to set up. Robin Christopherson from AbilityNet, suggests smart options
which use apps, speech and wifi to enable a blind person to take control of their domestic appliances. Jackie is concerned however, that not everyone is comfortable
using smartphone technology and the demise of the button and tactile switches will leave some people behind.
Simon Cox, of Cobalt Systems talks about the issues around producing specialist equipment, but says his company has just launched a new
talking induction hob.
Tom Walker reports from Worcester New College on a new innovation hub which aims to give students and the public better access to assistive technology.

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20 minutes

In Touch Transcript

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY 

IN TOUCH – Inaccessible white goods

TX:  03.10.2017  2040-2100

 

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            CHERYL GABRIEL

 

White

Good evening.  Tonight:  The modern household equipment which has plenty of whistles and bells but according to some blind people not enough buttons.  And why for some visually-impaired students this won’t be a problem in the future.

Clip

In school I use a braille note but I heard a braille note touch has come out, so that might be useful as well. 

 

I use Supernova on the laptop, so in Supernova I could do – change the colour of my screen, so it’s not black on white, it’s white on black.

 

White

More from those students later in the programme.

 

But first, Jackie Brown needs a new washing machine.  Is this headline news, I hear you cry?  Well more than you might think because she’s having real trouble finding one that she can use independently, unlike the one she has at the moment.  And it’s not just washing machines but a range of other white goods.  From our Belfast studio Jackie explained her problem.

 

Brown

We have a washing machine which we’ve had for nine years and we are at some point, it stands to reason, going to have to replace it.  A lot of machines now you need to do programming of the fabric and the temperature, so you need assistance in some ways to do that because there are screens, a digital screen, and they come up with this information that you’ve got to put in before you can press the start button.

 

White

So what does this mean to you personally because you’ve actually found this problem yourself or know that you’re going to have this problem?

 

Brown

Yeah well, I want to look for a machine with a dial, primarily, that will click, so you can move it round – say once for a 30 degree, twice for a 40 or whatever.  And with a little bit of jiggery pokery you can do this on some machines.  You could put bump-ons, you could use braille labels.

 

White

Now you’ve actually been round your local white good stores I think, I mean just tell us what you’ve found.

 

Brown

I found several washing machines that had buttons and dials but, as I say, they are digital panels on them so they require not just choosing a wash, a cycle, it also requires putting in the temperature and the fabric sometimes as well.  So there is a bit more to it than just finding the cycle you want and pressing the start button.  I have found cookers, most of the electric cookers now are completely flat tops, so you can’t feel the rings at all…

 

White

So they’re flat screens then?

 

Brown

They are, they are totally flat kind of ceramic things.  And I even saw one cooker yesterday that had no buttons, no dials, nothing on it whatsoever, it was all touch.

 

White

So in a word what do you want the manufacturers to do?

 

Brown

I think we need more tactile buttons or panels, even being able to talk to the machine, like an Amazon Echo, like an Alexa type service, where you actually speak to an assistant that’s built in.

 

White

So you want that in the machine itself?

 

Brown

Yeah I think – I think it would great if it was – if it was feasible.

 

White

Okay, well we’ll hear what the organisation representing the manufacturers have to say in a moment but first let me bring in Robin Christopherson.  Now Robin founded Ability Net, which campaigns for accessible equipment and information and has issued a number of reports about how a whole range of industries have sometimes succeeded but quite often failed in taking our needs into consideration, things like banks, supermarkets, airlines, sports stadia.  Despite this though Robin you’re something of a sceptic about what Jackie wants to see, can you just explain what your position is on this?

 

Christopherson

Well I think Jackie is absolutely right that the days of being able to require manual controls on a white good are rapidly diminishing – bump ons and labelling with Dymo is going to be increasingly difficult as things become more computerised.  Everything is software driven and that really requires a sort of a software interface, perhaps a touch panel or some sort of very sensitive controls, rather than big manual knobs, it’s just the way that everything is going at the moment.  Now the good news on – for people with a visual-impairment for example, if you can hear, is that Alexa is going to be added into an awful lot of things, we’ve had lots of announcements from Amazon recently.

 

White

Of course you mentioned one particular manufacturer there but can you just run us through the sort of other runners and riders in this artificial intelligence race?

 

Christopherson

Absolutely, so Echo is obviously the most popular virtual assistant out there.  Google Home is a very strong competitor.  Everyone’s anticipating the Home Pod, which is the one that will have Siri built in by Apple.  And then of course there’s Bixby added into Samsung phones and Cortana on the Windows desktop.  Now the more expensive goods tend to be the ones that are connected and have connectivity and almost invariably have an app associated with them.  So and if you have a smart phone then you can interface with all of these goods with an app that should be accessible and that would certainly be an area where we would to campaign.

 

White

But there are two problems there, aren’t there, and you’ve mentioned them both – one is the cost, the having to get stuff at the higher end and the other one is – you need a fair amount of technological knowledge to know what you’re doing.

 

Christopherson

So what we have been campaigning for at Ability Net is a lower end solution where there’s enough smarts in the device and if you can have a little Bluetooth, it just costs just a few pence to install, chip within that device that can talk to a smartphone or a tablet then you can control those things without having to go through the internet.

 

Brown

Yeah the problem I’ve got with that Robin would be perhaps okay for somebody like myself who uses a smartphone, you’re always then relying on the software to work for you all the time.  If you’ve just bought a new appliance and you think well great, the app’s going to do this for me, that I’ll be able to use that and then suddenly there’s a new release of the app or a new release of the operating system and then you’re screwed, you’ve got a washing machine you can’t use.

 

White

Robin?

 

Christopherson

Well basically you’re absolutely right and the challenge there is to make sure that they respect accessibility and the guidelines are very clear and one would hope that they would be able to do that and that’s a much smaller ask than for them to build in accessibility, not just for people with a visual-impairment but right across the disability spectrum into every single one of their products and there would be a very significant price tag associated with that.

 

White

Does that mean that you think that the idea of the one-off machine made for blind people is dead?  I mean I suppose the classic example that we remember with that are things like microwaves for example.

 

Christopherson

…microwave, yeah.  I think there’s a place for everything and whilst I have replaced my backpack full of self-talking specialist devices with a single smartphone and apps in there that do all of the jobs that these other gadgets did for a fraction of the cost, even when you take into account the cost of the smartphone and it can do so much more as well.  What we’d like to do here – and it literally would cost pence on the price of each good – would be to add in that connectivity and just think of the number of people that are familiar with smartphones.

 

White

If it only costs pence why aren’t they doing it?

 

Brown

Good question.

 

Christopherson

That’s what we’ve been campaigning for and if you have a look on the Ability Net website you’ll see a very lucid article about it that I wrote three years ago, so that’s how long we’ve been calling for this particular bit of functionality.  But yeah connected devices is a thing and they’re not going away and these devices are going to get smarter and smarter with the controls becoming less and less manual.  And this would be one answer but we absolutely need Jackies to campaign very loudly and eloquently about building in the sort of Rolls Royce solutions that would really help people and would have real utility in.

 

Brown

And maybe would bring the price down as well if they became more popular and more user friendly.

 

White

That’s Jackie Brown and Robin Christopherson.

 

Well we had been talking to the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances, they had no one who could come onto the programme but they say that both their association and the individual manufacturers consult with the RNIB to ensure the accessibility of their equipment and that some of its members offer a free braille option on their washing machine panels.  They say in the future the large white goods manufacturers are hopeful that the new Wi-Fi connected ranges will offer voice activation.

 

Well while manufacturers grapple with the technology there it seems one of the few specialist companies in this field – Cobalt Systems – is giving some thought to it too.

 

Simon Cox, Cobalt’s General Manager, has been telling me about some of the work they were doing.  So Simon, what exactly in this field are you up to?

 

Cox

Well a number of people over the last couple of years have been asking for a washing machine.  We have been doing a feasibility study on this.

 

White

And what are the problems with it because presumably if it was easy you’d have done it by now?

 

Cox

Well the biggest problem with these products, especially large products like microwave ovens, combination ovens, washing machines, is the cost of developing.  We have to be able to buy a machine from a manufacturer that we can convert because obviously if I was to tool up injection moulds, metal stamping moulds, to make the actual washing machine it would cost millions.  Again like we did with the oven – we need to find a long term partner where we can buy the ovens in a carcass form and we can then put our own electronic software etc. into that.

 

White

So how close are you to do this with washing machines?

 

Cox

That’s the $64,000 question eh.  I’m hoping that it will be some time in the next year.

 

White

I mean you heard the problems that Jackie was having, but if you compare it say with the microwave, where you’re using speech and so forth and simple buttons, what would someone using one of your projected machines be able to do?

 

Cox

Well it would either work like the microwave where you’ve got a membrane switch panel with raised buttons or it would work where you’ve got an external almost remote type box.  But basically you’d be able to control the whole washing machine with full speech.

 

White

But is there a big enough market for you because what we’re hearing there is Robin saying you could do all this with a little app, you could put it on your phone, you don’t have to cart all this special equipment around with you.  Now that’s like saying there isn’t a future for your kind of company.

 

Cox

I disagree with that because ultimately there are a lot of people out there that don’t use smartphones – elderly people, people that just don’t like tech and actually people that prefer the good old fashion one unit device.  I mean I love gadgets, trust me I’ve got every gadget known to man, but even I couldn’t justify a washing machine that worked from an app.  Obviously we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make financial sense.  And I think it is very achievable from what we’ve done so far.  The only other problem is obviously the logistics of having it delivered, connected up, if there’s an issue.  They’re the sort of things that we’re looking at, at the moment.

 

White

One thing that might be music to Jackie’s ears, because she mentioned it, is a hob.  You’ve been doing something on that haven’t you?

 

Cox

Yes that’s correct, we’ve just launched our new product – a single and a double talking induction hob.  An induction hob cooks either by temperature, so you can select a temperature, the hob will keep the pan up to the temperature or alternatively you can cook by power level and everything is through speech.  If you remove the pan it will say “no pan”, if you put the pan back on it will say “pan”.  You can also add a timer to that.  Very simple, very safe.

 

White

Simon Cox thank you very much indeed.  And if you’d like to know more about that hob we are going to be reviewing it in a future programme.

 

And we’d like to hear your experience as well – are you managing to wash your clothes independently?  If so, how and what with.  You can call our actionline for 24 hours after tonight’s programme on 0800 044 044, email In Touch on bbc.co.uk or go to our website and click on contact us, that’s www.bbc.co.uk/intouch from where you can also download tonight’s podcast.

 

One group who should be well equipped to deal with the gadgets of the future are the students at New College, Worcester.  Now as you would expect of a school dedicated to teaching visually-impaired pupils they are already using digital equipment, which has speech, braille and magnification software.  But now the school has opened up an innovation hub.  Well to find out exactly what that means Tom Walker went back to his old school for a guided tour and to meet some of the students who’ll be using it.

 

Luke

You’ve Windows for the work and the school related stuff and then IOS for their personal and sort of leisure type stuff.  So they can pick and choose really what they want.

 

Walker

This is Luke [indistinct surname], one man who’s uniquely qualified to comment on the innovation hub because he’s doing IT A level.  You’re in your final year…

 

Luke

Yes.

 

Walker

… how do you feel an innovation hub like this is going to help you with your future studies?

 

Luke

Because it gives me a range of different skills and a range of different equipment to use.  I was just talking to someone earlier about the different systems that are in this room.  There’s equipment from tablets to laptops to big screens and software from IOS on the phones to Windows.  And it just teaches you the basics of everything that’s out there for when you go into the world of work then and you’re not stuck to one particular system or piece of software.

 

Fogg

As we come in on our right hand side we’ve got a large interactive white board…

 

Walker

This is the Head of IT Jonathan Fobb.

 

Fogg

…that allows you to use apps as you would on an Android device.  It also allows you to connect to an iPad or other tablets or to laptops so you can see what’s on the laptop, you can see on the big screen, and vice versa.  Over on our left hand side we’ve got a range of technology including two in one tablets, laptops and desktops.

 

Walker

Jonathan, tell me about the thinking behind the innovation hub first of all.

 

Fogg

To try and encourage our students and teachers to think imaginatively about how they deliver their lessons to the students.

 

Walker

So say for instance history or geography, how might that change from the traditional approach then?

 

Fogg

With geography we’ve now got a large interactive white screen, they can bring up maps, the white screen goes flat and students can stand around it and they can zoom in on the maps, they can pinpoint specific areas and it’s a high quality screen, so that they can get a much better view of those maps.

 

Walker

So when we look at the other technology in here what will that be used for and how will that contribute to the children’s learning?

 

Fogg

Hopefully what we’ll get is a range of different technologies in here so that our students can get experience of using access technology but also experience of using different standard technologies so they become familiar with the variety of technology that’s available.

 

Children chatting

Is this a touch screen?

 

Yes.

 

So it’s a touch screen the same as Chelsea’s.

 

Your screen Fizzy can turn around.

 

Oh yeah.

 

So if you want to show the teacher your work you can just turn it round.

 

Ah okay.

 

Walker

Students Chelsea and Fizzy getting to grips with the technology.

 

Children chatting

In school I use a braille note, so I might be a mixture of a braille note and a laptop.  But I heard a braille note touch has come out, so that might be useful as well.

 

I use Supernova on the laptop, so in Supernova I could change the colour of my screen, so it’s not black on white, it’s white on black.  I can then change the magnification on it.

 

Talking screen

 

Tobias

Activation there we are.  Oh this is a laptop you see, it keeps crashing.

 

Walker

That voice you can hear is Tobias, who’s 13 years old, looking at NV DA with touch support, is that right Tobias?

 

Tobias

I am.

 

Walker

Tell me what you think of it.

 

Tobias

Well it’s good alright but the touch support doesn’t really work.  I admit it – I can’t use touch [indistinct word] on this.

 

Walker

Have you worked it out?

 

Tobias

I have.

 

Walker

What do you think of the innovation hub Tobias?

 

Tobias

It’s very good actually thanks, I’m quite interested.  It would be good for experimenting with new things and teaching people other stuff.  On the whole it’s a good idea really.  You might not have noticed this but I love teaching people about using technology because it’s my favourite subject, so if someone asks me – can you tell me about such and such – I will spend the next half an hour just blabbering on about it.

 

Walker

I’m standing in front of a very large smart screen and with Freddy, who’s in Year 9, and the school’s Vice Principal Sian Shaw.  Freddy, you’re very interested in photography.

 

Freddy

Yeah.

 

Walker

Tell me about the photography course you’re doing.

 

Freddy

The photography course has got 18 modules and you can go back and forward on them, so you can keep going back to see what you’ve done in the past.

 

Walker

And how does this screen help you?

 

Freddy

The screen is touch screen and you can go up and down and just – it’s like a big iPad and you can zoom in on photos and whatever you need to see on the screen.

 

Walker

So what photo have you got in front of you there, maybe we could zoom in on that one?

 

Freddy

Oh the photo that’s in front of me is a dog.

 

Shaw

This is a picture of a dog’s snout and the thing that’s so good for Freddy and other students is that it just, as well as enlarging it, you keep the detail.

 

Walker

I can really see – I can see the veins almost.

 

Shaw

Yes.  So this is really good because it’s got clarity.

 

Freddy

And sometimes when you zoom in on a normal laptop it goes blurry.

 

Walker

That’s amazing isn’t it?

 

Freddy

It makes the dog’s nose look a bit wet.

 

Shaw

As Freddy continues with the course his photos will be up here too and then people can comment on them, they can give suggestions – shadows, light, contrast – that sort of thing, so it’s really exciting.

 

Walker

What do you think about the hub generally Freddy?

 

Freddy

I think it’s a good room and I think it will be helpful for the students in the school.

 

White

That was Freddy ending Tom Walker’s report.

 

And that’s it for today.  Do let us have your views on anything you’ve heard in the programme.  From me, Peter White, producer Cheryl Gabriel and the team, goodbye.

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