App-controlled Appliances Could Solve Accessibility

Appliances controlled by an app? Really? Do we need that? I am sure we have all heard something along these lines and thought “oh surely that’s a gimmick, how hard is it to push the button on the oven?” Don’t laugh just yet. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015 has been full of reports of smart appliances and apps. GE has announced a new line of app-controlled appliances. Not to be outdone, the Google-owned Nest Labs is connecting more everyday devices to the internet. Dacor’s Android oven with voice activation can be controlled with a Siri-like app that lets you talk to it. LG’s smart appliances now respond to your voice and are connected to the internet. And you know, there is opportunity here.

For a long time everyday appliances such as washing machines, dryers, microwaves, ovens and even some stoves have been becoming less accessible, especially to the blind and visually impaired. Washing machines used to have knobs and dials on them. While the markings were not accessible out of the box, it was easy enough to place tactile markings on the important settings and arrows and make them line up and use it. Now they come with buttons and lights, or even worse, touchscreens with no feedback whatsoever. Microwaves and ovens are especially guilty of the touchscreen phenomena. Been noted that in many cases it’d really not be that difficult to add some feedback to these machines such as a voice that says “water setting not on hot” for the washing machine. Even a beep generator that’d generate different patterns would be of help. Easy or not, manufacturers haven’t done it.

If the reports from CES 2015 are any indication we are on the brink of a new wave of “smart” appliances, even things we maybe didn’t know could or even should be so smart. Instead of laughing at it, I would like to encourage the manufacturers, designers and marketers to consider the opportunity here to add accessibility. If an appliance is going to use an app, then let’s make the app accessible. For example, an app for iOS should work with the VoiceOver screen reader. Likewise an Android app should support TalkBack. Simple things such as is the oven on? Is it set to 350 degrees? Is the washing machine using cold water? Are all mundane but critical pieces of information that would make life a lot easier, and perhaps less smoky. What, the oven switched itself to broil instead of bake?

I have noticed a few reports focusing on voice recognition where the appliance will respond to a voice command. This is fine and can be convenient, but I would like to remind that the first piece for accessibility should be the output. So let’s not forget that communicating the current settings of devices is just as important, if not more so, than commanding them via our voices.

I would stil like at least some appliances to have more accessibility built right in without having to use an app on my phone. But if manufacturers are only focusing on apps now, and they are willing to add accessibility, it’d help a lot.