What We’re Hoping is Under the Tree

By Aser Tolentino, Assistive Technology Instructor

Mindful of the fact that Cyber Week is behind us, many of the staff at Society for the Blind are still Googling away – on our breaks of course – for the right gifts to surprise friends and loved ones. And of course, we’re all hoping to find something special under the tree. For those of us who happen to be blind or low vision, however, there’s something a little special about items on store shelves and at the top of gift guides around the web in 2019: More of the must-have gifts of the season are accessible than ever before. In an age of Echoes and iPhones, Surfaces and Frames, the mainstream technology landscape has never been more inviting to the blind consumer. Here are some examples of gadgets that are uniquely accessible or provide a new slant on accessibility or equal access for the blind.

Amazon Echo Show

Among the most important practices when coping with less than perfect vision is figuring out a way to identify and organize items around the kitchen. Mixing up the salt and the sugar is something you only do once, until you do it twice. The Amazon Echo Show, a version of the company’s smart speaker that comes with a camera and touch screen provides you a way to recruit its virtual assistant Alexa to help manage the pantry. While it can’t tell one white powder from another, it can identify packaged goods you hold in front of the camera when you ask it, “Alexa, what am I holding?”

Amazon Smart Oven

The power to control your food preparation via spoken command is hardly new. On the other hand, the ability to call upon such a variety of cooking options with the uttering of a few choice phrases probably hasn’t been so easy since chimneysweep was an acceptable after-school job. The Smart Oven boasts the ability to roast, air fry, convection bake or microwave with up to 1600 watts of power. It comes with everything you need including an Amazon Echo Dot to which you may bark your draconian demands. It’s smart enough to know how long and at what power level to defrost frozen vegetables and can even scan codes on a few select products to obtain proper cooking instructions without your input. It’s something a lot of our staff are very keen to try just as soon as it arrives.

Apple AirPods 2 and AirPods Pro

Apple’s now iconic truly wireless earbuds offer special benefits for visually impaired iPhone users. Given the need to use a screen reader to access most of the iPhone’s features, the risk of potentially revealing personal or professionally sensitive information to anyone within range of the iPhone’s admirably loud speakers can unfortunately be a part of the everyday compromises required for functional accessibility. That means the availability of extremely compact earbuds that are always ready for use is a game changer. The ability to wirelessly recharge the AirPods, the option to use them one at a time, and the seamless integration with multiple Apple devices make the Airpods 2 a valuable addition to any iOS user’s toolkit. When you throw in noise cancelling and the very convenient transparency function that allows conversations to pass into your otherwise secluded cone of silence, even the AirPods Pro with their $250 price tag might begin to look appealing. Most of us are still on the fence, not least of which because we’re still afraid of losing them. But the AirPods have won a lot of fans over the years and are sure to win more.

Bose Frames

The AirPods are cool, but the Bose Frames let you hide the speakers all together in the body of some pretty stylish sunglasses. And that’s not all, the Frames house an array of sensors that provide compatible apps with real-time telemetry on location, direction and orientation. This means that an app like Microsoft SoundScape can provide positional data about points of interest in relation to where the wearer is looking, providing an augmented reality experience that calls out upcoming points of interest and renders them in an audio landscape that swivels around the traveler as they turn their head.

Microsoft Surface Pro X

Show us a piece of technology and we’ll show you someone trying to do it better, smaller and cheaper. That includes Microsoft, which saw their own Surface Pro 6 tablet and decided they could do better. The Surface Pro X is a reimagined version of their tablet: a sleeker device with longer battery life, a slightly larger screen and more efficient processor. Some of our instructors are eager to see just what this lightweight competitor to the iPad Pro is truly capable of when paired with assistive technology software.

So those are some of the gadgets we’re looking forward to trying out as the year comes to a close. Check out our newsletter and the SFTB Connection for tech news and accessibility updates to help you and yours this holiday season and into the new year.