While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. Smart speakers are a fairly new mainstream technology that primarily uses audio input and output for providing information, making them a popular option for nonvisual access for blind and low vision users. Here are features to look for when buying a smart speaker for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.
I typically use my smart speaker in a smaller environment like a dorm room or bedroom, and don’t need a loud or powerful speaker in order to hear my device. Mini smart speakers are great for these types of spaces and can rest on the edge of a desk or nightstand, while larger speakers may be better for larger spaces or places that can get loud very quickly like a living room or kitchen. One of my friends with no usable vision purchased a smart speaker for their bathroom so that they could listen to audiobooks in the shower and use the device intercom feature, and discovered that they needed a larger speaker size so that they could hear their device over running water.
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Screen size/display size- or no screen at all
There are a few smart speakers on the market that feature displays and built-in cameras for displaying information, watching videos, making video calls, and identifying objects with the built-in camera. Many users with low vision prefer to have larger screen sizes on these types of devices over the smaller/mini screens because a lot of smart speakers do not feature a lot of customization options for large print.
Some users may prefer to have no screen or camera on their smart home speaker and instead rely on spoken control and audio output exclusively, instead of having the visual display to serve as a supplement. I prefer to have no screen for the smart speaker in my bedroom because I am sensitive to light and don’t want to look at a screen or see the backlight of a screen when using the device in a dark room, and the nonvisual access features are why I was drawn to having a smart speaker to begin with.
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What skills/functions are supported by the virtual assistant
Each smart speaker comes with its own virtual assistant software that is often proprietary to the device- for example, Alexa is the virtual assistant that comes with Amazon Echo products, while Siri is used for Apple products. Each smart speaker comes with the option to enable third-party skills from other developers, and many have options for creating custom skills as well, such as the Amazon Blueprints tool for custom Alexa skills or Shortcuts for Apple products.
While each virtual assistant offers different third-party skills and functions, some examples of built-in skills/functions that are available across all devices include:
- Talking clock
- Checking the weather
- Setting reminders
- Basic web searches
- Music streaming/listening to podcasts
- Ordering items online
- Basic calculator
- Getting information about local businesses
- Setting timers/alarms
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Integration with other devices, i.e smartphone
By connecting my smartphone to the smart speaker’s application, I can use the smart speaker to make phone calls and send messages with only my voice, and have the caller ID show up as my phone number. This feature was incredibly helpful when I fell down and had to call for help, as I was able to make a phone call when I wasn’t able to reach my phone.
Smart speakers can also be connected to other devices such as computers or MP3 players to serve as a Bluetooth speaker that can be controlled with the voice. Many smart speakers also have a phone connector/audio jack for wired device connections or headphones.
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Ability to use the device without speaking
While the most popular method for smart speaker input is speaking, many smart speakers provide users with options to type requests in the device application, or on the smart speaker screen. Many Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices also support Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, and the device’s spoken output can be used to interact with smart speakers.
Another option for controlling smart speakers without speaking is to enable shortcuts within the smart speaker’s mobile application for tasks such as pausing music, turning lights on/off, or similar tasks.
Smart home features/automation
There are several auxiliary/peripheral devices available for smart home and automation, such as outlets, lightbulbs, night lights, thermostats, televisions, microwaves, and many more. These devices can be controlled with the voice and may be specific to one smart speaker operating system- for example, the Alexa smart outlets can only be used with devices that support Amazon Alexa. Installing the smart outlets in my bedroom has been a game changer for adjusting the lighting in my room, as I no longer have to get up to turn off the light at night.
Summary of features to consider when choosing a smart speaker with low vision
- Device size and location- consider the volume level of the room where the device will primarily be located
- Smart speaker screens can provide enhanced access to visual information, but may not support large text sizes
- Supported skills/functions- many virtual assistants provide similar features and options for downloading third-party applications
- Integration with other devices- connecting a smartphone can allow users to make calls without having a phone present, or control MP3 player music with their voice
- Ability to use the device without speaking/alternative input methods
- Smart home features/automation capabilities- peripheral devices may be exclusive to one virtual assistant/operating system