Comcast Brings ‘Talking Guide’ To X1

Following a small set of trials conducted over the summer, Comcast is preparing to expand the availability of a new “talking guide” for its X1 interface, adding a feature that’s tailored to the needs of customers who are blind or visually impaired or use English as a second language.

This new Voice Guidance element, which features a female voice and is driven by Comcast’s cloud-powered X1 platform, reads aloud channel names, show titles, video-on-demand settings and even DVR commands as the customer navigates the guide with the X1’s standard remote control.

The voice-based component also calls out individual program descriptions and ratings from Common Sense Media  (Comcast added those kid-friendly ratings to X1 in October) as well as Rotten Tomatoes. Customers will be able to activate the talking guide by tapping the “A” button twice on their remote control or by flipping it on via the X1 guide’s “accessibility settings” menu.  Comcast said the talking guide feature will also help users turn on other accessibility settings such as the secondary audio program (SAP), which is sometimes used to provide viewers with descriptions of on-screen visuals when there are pauses in spoken dialogue.

Future versions of the X1 talking guide will add search functionality and additional personalization settings that, for example, will allow the customer to determine the rate of speech, Comcast said.

Comcast demonstrated an early version of the talking guide at The Cable Show earlier this year and started to test the feature with about 20 visually-impaired customers in July. The American Council of the Blind participated in the trial.

Comcast plans to launch the talking guide commercially “in the next few weeks,” making it available to all X1 customers. Comcast has not announced how many of its 22.3 million video customers are on the X1 platform, but the MSO did reveal last month that it has deployed more than 5 million X1 boxes so far. 

Billing it as the industry’s first voice-guided TV interface, the X1 talking guide is a product of Comcast’s Accessibility Lab, and arrives about two years after Comcast hired Tom Wlodkowski, the MSO’s vice president of audience and exec who has been blind since birth, to focus on the usability of the company’s products and services by people with disabilities.

The talking guide is a “real game-changer for anyone who is blind and loves TV,” said Wlodkowski, who demonstrated the feature last week at Comcast’s corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.

Roughly 19 million U.S. homes have at least one member with a disability, according to a recent American Housing Survey, and 8.1 million people have a visual disability, according to U.S. Census data.

The X1 talking guide got its start in 2012 in preparation for an upcoming Lab Week put on by Comcast that was focused on accessibility. Engineers and other employees started work on a component for X1 that they labeled “Text to Speech” at the time.

“Television is universally loved, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it,” Brian Roberts, Comcast’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “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.”

More about the X1 talking guide and its development will be featured in the November 17 issue of Multichannel News.