Kim Charlson is blind, but she loves television. Her favorite show is “NCIS,” the naval crime series. And thanks to new technology from Comcast Corp., it will soon be a lot easier for Charlson and other blind fans to tune in.
The cable television provider’s X1 digital service will soon feature a “talking guide” that will read out channel listings and program descriptions in a lifelike electronic voice. Blind users who “view” TV programs by listening to them will now find it easier to change channels, track down their favorite programs, and program their digital video recorders to copy shows.
On Tuesday, Charlson demonstrated the new talking guide at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where she works as library director. She said the talking guide lets her channel-surf like any sighted person.
“I always wondered why they would say there’s 200 channels and I can’t find a thing to watch. That’s how I always felt,” Charlson said. “At least now I can identify what’s on all those channels.”
The talking guides will become available to all X1 subscribers nationwide over the next few weeks.
Users won’t have to get new equipment; the system runs automatically over Comcast’s data network.
“It’s cloud-based, so we didn’t have to worry about installing additional hardware or software in a box,” said Tom Wlodkowski, Comcast’s vice president of accessibility. He is also a veteran of the National Center for Accessible Media at the public television station WGBH in Boston.
Cullen Gallagher, a 16-year-old from Quincy who’s an 11th-grader at Perkins, isn’t a big TV fan. But the new talking guide could change that, he said.
“I want to see what’s out there on the TV networks,” Gallagher said. “I’m just going to play around and look at the menus. I’m a geek. I like to play with technology.”
Comcast said the talking guide is the first offered by any cable company in the United States. It was developed in response to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, a federal law enacted in 2010. The legislation requires cable companies to start offering audible menus to make onscreen commands usable by people who have vision problems.
The talking menu system works in conjunction with another federally mandated service, descriptive video. This is a service in which a voice describes on-screen action during a TV show, saying things like, “Jack Bauer draws his gun.” The nation’s nine most popular broadcast and cable channels must offer these descriptive services on at least four hours of programming every week.
The combination of descriptive video and spoken channel guides will make TV a more immersive experience for about 8 million Americans with vision disabilities.
“TV is more than just a box with a picture in it,” Charlson said. “It’s our culture and our society, and people spend a lot of time talking to each other about what they watched on TV last night. It’s important to be a part of that conversation.”