Comcast launches voice-enabled content navigation
Michelle Clancy
| 14 November 2014
Comcast has announced a voice-enabled television user interface for its Xfinity TV customers, especially those who are blind or visually impaired, to navigate the X1 platform.

The 'talking guide' features a voice that reads aloud selections like programme titles, network names and time slots as well as DVR and on-demand settings. The feature will be available to all X1 customers in the next few weeks.

About 19 million US households have at least one member with a disability, and according to the US Census there are 8.1 million people with a visual disability. In 2012, Comcast hired Tom Wlodkowski as vice president of audience to focus on the usability of the company's products and services by people with disabilities.

"Television is universally loved, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it," said Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO at Comcast. "The talking guide feature will enable all of our customers to experience the X1 platform in a new way, and give our blind and visually impaired customers the freedom to independently explore and navigate thousands of shows and movies. We're just scratching the surface of what's possible in the accessibility space and we are thrilled to have Tom and his team leading the charge."

The talking guide 'speaks' what's on the screen as the viewer navigates the guide, including the saved, on-demand and settings sections. It also includes details like individual programme descriptions, and ratings from Common Sense Media and Rotten Tomatoes that help viewers decide what to tune to.

Future versions of the feature will include functionality within the search section of X1, and additional personalisation settings like rate of speech.

"The talking guide is as much about usability as it is about accessibility," said Wlodkowski. "We think about accessibility from the design of a product all the way through production, and this feature is the result of years of work by our team including customer research, focus groups and industry partnerships. For people like me who are blind, this new interface opens up a whole new world of options for watching TV."

X1 customers will be able to activate the talking guide on their existing set-top box by tapping the 'A' button twice on their remote control. The feature also can be turned on via the accessibility settings within the main settings menu.

"Programming my DVR is one of the most empowering things I have ever done with my TV," said Eric Bridges, director of external relations and policy development at The American Council of the Blind (ACB), who participated in a Comcast customer trial over the summer. "My wife and I are both blind, so thanks to this new feature, we no longer have to choose between going out to dinner or catching our favourite show. The talking guide encourages independence and self-sufficiency; it's a real game-changer for anyone who is blind and loves TV."

Next year, Comcast plans to partner with service organisations and non-profits to create awareness in the disability community of Voice Guidance and other accessibility features that offer a more inclusive entertainment experience.

The company also has a service centre specifically dedicated to customers with disabilities. Comcast's Accessibility Centre of Excellence is based in Pensacola, FL, where a team of specially trained care agents handles about 10,000 calls each month.