[Nfbc-info] FYI Comcast's talking Program Guide/Article from Philadelphia Inquirer

Michael Hingson info at michaelhingson.com
Wed Aug 28 19:55:38 UTC 2013

Blind Comcast exec developing a talking TV channel guide

Comcast Corp. has hired a sight-challenged executive, Tom Wlodskowski, Vice
President/Accessibility, to develop a "talking TV interface" for the blind
and other accessible products for the disabled. The talking TV guide could
be out in 2014 as part of X2 channel guide and available for everyone.  (
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer ) 

Bob Fernandez, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: Wednesday, August 28, 2013, 1:08 AM 


How does a blind person find what to "watch" on a TV with 200 channels and
46,000 video-on-demand choices of movies, shows, and clips? Tom Wlodkowski,
a blind executive at Comcast Corp., thinks he has the answer: a talking TV
channel guide.

No joke.

"The television is not strictly as visual a medium as you might think," said
David Goldfield, a computer technology instructor at the Associated Services
for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "Radio drama in the U.S. is more or
less dead. If you are blind and you want a good story, you're still going to
get it on television."

Comcast expects the talking guide to come with its next-generation X2
platform in 2014. The cable giant demonstrated the talking guide this year
at a California technology conference and at the cable-TV-industry trade
show in Washington.

Comcast also market-tested the guide with 20 average-Joe-type sight-impaired
individuals in Philadelphia, arranged by the Associated Services for the
Blind and Visually Impaired.

The interactive, cloud-based guide - the current voice is a woman, but users
eventually could choose the voice, as they can with a ring tone - responds
to buttons the person pushes.

This is part of a year-old project at Comcast to make the company's products
more accessible to customers with disabilities. Wlodkowski has an
"accessibility" team and will soon have a lab in the Comcast Center.

Comcast isn't doing this just to reach out to the nation's 1.3 million blind
individuals who fear being left behind as popular culture and media go
digital on the Internet and TV.

The Twenty-First Century Communications and Accessibility Act of 2010,
passed on the 20-year anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, is
forcing technology companies to integrate accessibility functions into
products. It's believed that, in three years, talking interfaces will have
to come with TV products.

Wlodkowski thinks he also can drive business. People with disabilities
account for $200 billion in discretionary spending power, and catering to
their needs, he believes, can boost brand loyalty.

"We will meet the requirements of the law, but we also believe there can be
innovation," he said.

Wlodkowski is looking to develop products that could help older Americans
"age in place" through the Xfinity home products, which now include home

Generally, technology companies - with the exception of Apple Inc. - have
received poor marks in the selling of blind-friendly products.

"We see it as a civil right, and we see manufacturers embracing
accessibility way too slowly," Lauren McLarney, government affairs
specialist at the National Federation of the Blind, said of consumer
electronics and technology companies. Comcast's talking guide sounds
"worthwhile," but she hasn't seen it.

The association offers a channel guide by zip code called "newsline" that
last year was accessed 600,000 times.

Before the talking guide, Wlodkowski said, he would have to recognize Matt
Lauer's voice at NBC or Anderson Cooper on CNN. He also memorized channel
numbers. But most times, he had no idea what was on the channel.

"The only way I could navigate TV before," Wlodkowski said, "was to go up
and down the channels and listen until I found something that I liked."

Recently, he was fiddling with a talking TV guide and stumbled on Brady
Bunch reruns. "They still syndicate that? Wow," he said.

Formerly with AOL Inc., Wlodkowski is the vice president of accessibility
and said his team at Comcast had four goals:

To seek information from disabled customers about what they need and how
they interact with Comcast's products.

To integrate functionality into products so they can be more easily used by
disabled subscribers.

To introduce specific products, such as the talking guide.

To enhance customer service for disabled subscribers.

Wlodkowski, who was born blind, was raised in Southington, Conn., with three
older brothers. His parents insisted on a regular childhood. He rode a bike
in the neighborhood, skied with a guide, and marched in the marching band
(he beat the snare drum).

His most popular sitcom was Cheers because, he said, "it was relatively easy
to follow. When Norm walked in, everybody said, 'Hi, Norm.' "

He attended Boston College, majoring in communications. His first media job
was with WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. While there,
Wlodkowski developed, with a federal grant from the Department of Education,
a prototype of a talking TV interface. It was never commercialized.

Wlodkowski said he was happy to be back in a city with mass transit and
lives in an apartment at 17th and Arch Streets. His wife, Michele, and
15-year-old son, Colin, will relocate from Virginia, and he intends to buy a
suburban home near a rail line.

One challenging experience in Philadelphia has been mastering the elevators
at the sky-high Comcast Center. There are more than 30 elevators, and some
go only to certain floors.

"Catching the elevator in this place," Wlodkowski said, "is an art that I
don't think I have figured out."


Contact Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez at phillynews.com, or
follow on Twitter @bobfernandez1.

Bob Fernandez

Inquirer Staff Writer


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