Did you catch the Oscars? Better yet, did you catch Comcast’s commercial of Emily’s Oz? Little Emily describes what she envisions when experiencing the movie, The Wizard of Oz. For people who are blind or have visual difficulties, navigating the nubby buttons of a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) is an exercise in frustration, at best. Channel buttons often have the same shape, some buttons are differentiated by color, and there are a lot of them. What if you wanted to find a particular movie on cable? How could you, without assistance, find it, let alone know when it starts and ends? These are just some of the issues Comcast’s recently launched “talking” guide and menu system address for its cable TV customers. The talking guide, which is integrated into Comcast’s existing X1 operating system, uses voice to communicate channel listings, on-demand movie listings and information about specific programs, such as reviews. And it can be turned on and off by a single button on the remote. It is, according to Comcast, the first voice-prompted DVR, affording users independence and inclusion. To learn more about this pioneering technology, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan spoke with Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility for Comcast Cable, and Steven Restivo, executive director of communications.
Chet Cooper: Can you explain more about what you guys have launched?
Tom Wlodkowski: Sure. Comcast has a comprehensive accessibility program based in our technology and product organization. I run the accessibility initiative. My peers own the cable set-top box, the web and the mobile apps that we develop, and accessibility is thought of at the beginning of a development project, not as an afterthought or retrofit experience. Our accessibility effort is founded on four fundamental pillars, one being customer engagement, making sure that we’re involving people with disabilities throughout the development process of our products and services. The second pillar is product capability, and we’ll talk about the launch of our talking guide, which we call a “voice guide.” That’s our X1 operating system. For the first time in our industry, that has opened up the TV viewing experience and set-top box interface to people who are blind or who have a visual disability. So product capability is the second pillar.
The third pillar is customer service. In October of 2013, we launched our first-ever support center for customers with disabilities, where we have 37-plus agents who are trained on accessibility features that Comcast Xfinity customers can get access to, to improve their experience. The fourth pillar is infrastructure, where we have an accessibility lab that’s part of our innovation labs in Philadelphia where we showcase assistive technology. We use it as a working lab, where we bring in executives and user-experience designers, product managers, and engineers to run their products with assistive technologies in the case of a website or mobile application, and then in some cases obviously working with the product teams to build accessibility directly into our products, as we did with the talking guide on our X1 operating system.
So the four pillars make up our accessibility effort. We have made a lot of progress in the past two years, and the biggest milestone right now is our launch of the talking guide, which opens up the TV experience on X1 for people who are blind or who have a visual disability. It’s available to all Comcast customers where X1 is available.
Cooper: How long have you been with the company?
Wlodkowski: I’ve been here since June of 2012. I was brought in to start up the initiative.
Cooper: Where is it available?
Wlodkowski: Anywhere that Comcast cable is available, a customer can request our X1 service. The talking guide is integrated into our X1 service. You don’t need any additional hardware, or additional software for that matter, but you do need to get our X1 service, and that’s where the talking guide is available. With a simple press of a button on the remote control you can turn it on or off.
Cooper: Does this feature cost extra?
Wlodkowski: We have several different platforms, as you might expect. For eligible customers who are blind or who have a visual disability, we will move that to the X1 platform if they specifically request the talking guide at no additional charge.
Cooper: So they need to know that it’s available, but they have to request it?
Wlodkowski: That’s correct. If they’re new customers, they would probably get X1 anyway. But yes, for existing customers, that’s why we’re talking with folks like you, and we’re using other channels to reach out to the audience so that we can create awareness. It’s also why we started this big Emily’s Oz campaign as well, to heighten awareness around access to entertainment by people with disabilities, but then specifically focusing on the availability of this talking guide on the X1 operating system.
Cooper: Was it your team who came up with the ad idea, or was it something that had been floating around?
Wlodkowski: The idea came out of an interesting morning walk through the train station with our VP of brand marketing. We were talking about what I was working on from the accessibility side, and I said, “I thought it’d be great if we could include somebody with a disability in a TV commercial.” His response was very positive. He said, “Why don’t we do that, but it would even be better to talk about products that you’re developing when you’re ready.” That was maybe a year and a half ago, when we were just ramping up. So what you see with this Emily’s Oz campaign is the two coming together, wanting to express our interest in reaching out to the disability community and to spark a broader conversation about how people with disabilities already consume or would like to consume entertainment.
That’s why we have Emily, who’s a seven-year-old girl who’s blind, describing her visualization of one of her favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz, and using the Oscars as the platform to spark a social media conversation. We did a Twitter live chat on this and had some really good responses. Other vehicles include using EmilysOz.com as a platform where people can experience video description. We describe the TV commercial online. We also have a described version of a documentary about the making of the commercial. We have links to our accessibility page, so you can get to know the types of services that are available for people with disabilities, like the talking guide, a voice-enabled remote control, closed captioning, or large-button remote controls for people with dexterity challenges. We’re using this platform as a way to highlight the range of services that are available so that people with disabilities might find them and can enhance their XFINITY experience.
Cooper: As you were describing the commercial with Emily, I was wondering if you’re 100% blind or legally blind?
Wlodkowski: I’m totally blind.
Cooper: When Emily described The Wizard of Oz, was it anything close to what you had envisioned in that movie?
Wlodkowski: I have to be honest: I hadn’t really visualized the movie in that way. I hadn’t given it much thought. It’s been years since I’ve watched The Wizard of Oz. Her images were vivid and brilliant. What I liked about it wasn’t that a seven-year-old girl who’s blind was imagining and visualizing The Wizard of Oz characters, like the Tin Man and the Scarecrow and the Lion; it was a very smart seven-year-old girl with a brilliant imagination who was interpreting what she’s learned and heard about color and the experiences she’s had tactilely and through other sensory experiences and then applying that to the movie. And she just happens to be blind. What I liked about that commercial the most was that it’s showing how a seven-year-old has this great imagination, and oh, by the way, she just happens to be blind. In that regard, she’s not different from any other seven-year-old. Lia
Martirosyan: How did you find her?
Wlodkowski: Goodby Silverstein & Partners in New York was the advertising agency that created the spot, and their casting people reached out to schools for the blind. It turns out that Emily is mainstreamed in a public school, but through the network, a teacher forwarded the casting email to Emily’s parents. The agency talked to many different candidates, and Emily was the one they selected. 40 ABILITY
Cooper: Before the talking guide technology, when you were watching television, what is the difference you’ve had in your own experience in entertainment and what’s happening today?
Wlodkowski: I think you could sum it up in three words: independence, empowerment, and inclusion. Before the talking guide, all someone could do who was blind or who had a visual disability would be to use the channel up and down buttons on the remote control to navigate the thousand-channel universe. With my luck, I stumbled into the show I wanted to watch, but it was a commercial break at the time, so I didn’t know that I was on the channel that had my favorite show. You just had to keep going up and down the channels until you found something remotely interesting to watch.
With the voice guidance feature of the talking guide on X1, I can independently navigate the TV listing. I can review it like anyone else. I can look at what channel I’m currently tuned to, find out what program is currently playing, how much time is left within that program, and what the TV rating is for that program. I can navigate what’s coming up next on that channel. I can navigate through all the channels and across the grid of the TV listings and find programs that I want. If I know I’ll be unavailable to watch a particular program, I can independently schedule a DVR recording of that program.
So not only were TV listings not accessible, but DVR recordings were not accessible. I couldn’t control my DVR, either, because I didn’t have that voice output coming back at me to allow me to navigate the DVR controls. So it’s given me independence. Take that one step further and you look at the 50,000 titles in our video-on-demand library, and I always used to wonder why it took my wife and sons forever to find a movie to watch.
Martirosyan: Now you know!
Wlodkowski: Yes, because again, the talking guide interface is allowing me to navigate, and with the movies, not only do we give you the title and the Motion Picture Association rating, but the running time of the movie and the price, if that’s relevant. We give you the Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating and the audience rating. I’m able to participate in that social aspect of it. So independence.
I say empowerment because now I can find something that everybody is talking about or will be talking about. We know that TV and movies are such a part of our pop culture. It’s what gets discussed around the office water cooler in the break room. Someone with a disability, someone who’s blind in this case, could feel marginalized if they didn’t have access to that content. It’s empowerment and inclusion. I can make the choice of what I want to watch. I can find it independently, and then I can talk about what I watched with everyone else, just like they can, at work the next day. I think that’s how this has changed.
We’ve gotten good feedback from customers. We had one couple, both of them are blind, and they have a sighted baby. You can imagine, when you have a little one, you don’t have much time to do anything except take care of the little one. They said that before, they used to have to choose whether to go out to dinner or watch their favorite TV show. Now with the talking guide, they do both. They can record their show and go out to dinner, just like everybody else. We heard from a woman in her twenties who said that for the first time she was able to schedule and play back a DVR recording and buy her favorite movie on demand. How many people in their twenties have been doing that since forever in their lives? So the type of feedback that we’re getting speaks to the game-changing impact that the talking guide has had on this audience.
Martirosyan: I don’t use Comcast in my area, so I don’t know, but are we talking about a box that’s doing this?
Wlodkowski: X1 is a set-top box. It’s what we call a cloud-based service. You have to have a box. Think of it as almost like a web browser, and I’m probably grossly oversimplifying what the box is doing. It’s obviously doing much more than that—processing video and audio and everything else. But the box will go out to the Comcast network and pull in the X1 interface. When you have the talking guide enabled, it’s going out and pulling in audio that describes the TV listing or the menu item that’s highlighted. We didn’t have to install any additional hardware or software on the box because the accessibility solution sits in the cloud, just like the rest of the X1 interface. Which is what made it a lot faster for us to get to this point.
If we’d had to try to do this three years ago, you would have had to find a box that was powerful enough to be able to install text-to-speech software on it so you could deliver the voice. Now, not only can we deploy it faster, we can also evolve it and update it incrementally. Right now there’s a team working on screens that we haven’t made accessible yet. We have the core components out there, the TV listings, the on-demand, the DVR, the settings areas. But there are still parts of the X1 interface that we need to unlock, that we need to attach to the talking guide. And the nice part about it is that we didn’t have to wait to launch the product. We can just roll in updates, similar to how your mobile device can get updates, and the customer wakes up the next morning and additional screens are accessible that weren’t the day before.
Steven Restivo: In a typical year, we’ll roll out thousands of upgrades, changes and improvements to that interface. Regarding Tom’s point, big, small, or in between, the platform is flexible enough that as we see areas of improvement or things that need tweaking, we can do those in real time.
Cooper: What is happening with the closed captioning for different shows that you distribute?
Wlodkowski: We have the capability of displaying captions across multiple platforms—our set-top boxes and mobile apps and TV websites—plus the ability to adjust fonts, background colors, window opacity and all sorts of enhanced closed-caption settings. We’re always looking at how we can further improve that. Easier access to turn on and off closed captioning. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area over the past couple of years. Closed captioning is one of the most received questions that we get into our support center from customers with disabilities. We know that’s an area we need to focus on, and we have some other exciting work to pursue to make it even better.
Cooper: What about descriptive narrative? What’s happening on that front?
Wlodkowski: The biggest set piece for us is video description with two projects in that area. One is, someone who’s blind can finally turn on and off the secondary audio program, or SAP audio, where the video description is made available. You might recall that the FCC instituted a mandate where broadcast networks and top five cable networks have to make 50 hours of programming available with description per quarter. That was great, but people couldn’t access the menu to turn on and off the audio channel to get at that narration. And now with the talking guide on X1, they can go into our accessibility settings and turn on and off the video description as needed. Again, that independence; they don’t have to wait for sighted assistance to turn it on and off. Because obviously when a program doesn’t have description, you might hear Spanish, because it shares the same audio stream that Spanish broadcasts use. We’re working to look at that down the road as well.
We have some devices that have a dedicated button on the remote control that turn on and off both closed captions and video descriptions. That’s what we call onetouch access. Our DTA device is one example. The next big front for video description is on-demand. We want to make our on-demand content as accessible as content is in live TV so when either a TV program or a film have description, those programs and films are made available on demand. We want the description track to come with it.
Right now we have a folder on-demand for described video. We have a small number of titles there now, partnering with NBCUniversal to deliver some of the content. We want that to increase over time. We’re excited that at least we have some content on-demand, but we know we have a lot of work to do to expand and bring it on par with on-demand as a whole. So more to come there, but at least we’ve got a stake in the ground.
Martirosyan: Do you have multiple languages in the system?
Wlodkowski: Funny you should ask. My team is also responsible for localization as well, because we believe there’s an intersection between accessibility and localization. You need to get at the core code to really effect change. We’re working now to support multiple languages. As we introduce new languages, we will also open up that support for the talking guide as well. So stay tuned—more to come on that.