By Jule Ann Lieberman, Assistive Technology Specialist, TechOWL
Last year, an article appeared in The PCB Advocate called “At Your Beck and Call.” In it, I requested survey participants to provide data on their use of devices such as the Amazon Echo (Alexa), Google Home, and Apple’s HomePod. I want to first thank the 40 respondents who provided feedback either through the on-line survey or from the telephone survey interview. Smart speakers are Internet-connected devices that allow you to obtain information, play music, and operate some appliances by using voice commands. I presented the survey results at three conferences: Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) in late January, California State University Northridge (CSUN) in March, and Penn-Del AER Conference in Harrisburg in late April. Each presentation provided me an opportunity to add feedback from conference attendees. I was also able to hear about new products and skills from Amazon. The following is a synopsis of the survey results and new findings from the conferences.
I want to first set the stage with how Americans indicate they use these smart speakers. According to “Smart Speaker Report,” around 39 million (1 out of 6) American adults use a smart speaker. This report, found at CNBC.com had results similar to my survey results. The report indicated percentages of use as follows: 60 percent using the devices to play music for guests, 30 percent asking it a general question, and 28 percent asking it for weather updates. Thirty-one percent of smart speaker owners are asking their virtual assistants to control other devices in the home, with 61 percent controlling devices in the living room and 38 percent controlling devices in the kitchen.
With regard to my survey, a total of 40 people responded: 30 identified themselves as blind, 8 as having low vision and 2 provided no identification of vision status. Those currently using a smart speaker numbered 28 with 8 indicating they were not currently using a smart speaker. Of those not currently using a smart speaker, 3 indicated they were planning on
acquiring a device, 3 had no interest in acquiring a device, and 2 did not answer the question.
The most popular smart speakers were those from Amazon: 14 Amazon Echos, 14 Amazon Dots, and 3 Amazon Taps. The remaining speakers being used were: 3 Google Homes, 5 Google Minis, and only one person identified as using a HomePod from Apple. One possible explanation for the popularity of the Amazon and Google devices is the lower price compared to the Apple product.
I divided the questions into two categories; listening tasks and daily living tasks. Listening tasks included the following results: 60 percent listen to music, 61 percent check the weather, 50 percent listen to news, 18 percent listen to books, 16 percent listen to podcasts, and 19 percent play games. Results within daily living tasks included: 52 percent set timers, 48 percent set alarms, 15 percent place hands-free phone calls, 48 percent set appointment reminders, 25 percent shop, and less than 10 percent control appliances. When comparing my results with those from the survey of Americans; blind and low-vision users perform very similar tasks except for using the smart speaker to operate an appliance.
Let me share some of the feedback I gathered from conference attendees. Some people have used MyBuddy, which can place a phone call by voice to a contact list saved in the Alexa app. This saves time if an emergency call is needed. Smart speakers can be paired with a smartphone and be used as a speaker. Some use the smart speaker to play books that have been downloaded to the smartphone’s BARD app. Amazon and Google are moving toward home automation. Amazon described the Amazon Microwave which is controlled by an Amazon Dot and security features which can be paired with security alarms to detect glass breaking or smoke alarms while you are away. Through the Alexa Guard you will be notified on the Alexa app and your security company will be notified.
When asked about setting up the smart speaker, 50 percent indicated they had a friend or family member set up the device, 25 percent said they set it up themselves based on experience with connecting to Wi-Fi, and 1 indicated he used a manual or tutorial to accomplish setup. Similar percentages were noted when asked how they learned about a smart speaker. Fifty percent said a friend or family member recommended the smart speaker. Respondents listed three barriers to using the smart speakers: not having Internet Access, concerns of privacy because of the microphone, and my favorite, “I don’t need another gadget.”
It is not surprising that persons who are blind or have low vision are much like the rest of Americans who find smart speakers helpful. As the costs of these speakers continue to become more affordable, their popularity will grow even faster. I learned from a conference that a veteran’s program is already providing smart speakers as a tool to help veterans who are blind or have low vision remain living independently. The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation in Massachusetts is currently conducting a pilot study where they provide the Amazon smart speakers to older adult customers along with set up and training.
If readers have more ideas on creative ways to use a smart speaker, please share with our peers by sending a message to our listserv or call the PCB office to pass it on. Many thanks to all the great survey participants from PCB!