Comcast® hired Tom Wlodkowski in 2012 to make the services of the telecommunications company more accessible to those with disabilities. Wlodkowski is a blind person, so he understands some challenges which people face when they try to control a TV set with a normal remote.
He built a team devoted to accessibility, and they developed the first voice-navigated TV interface of the cable segment, and made a support center specifically for subscribers with disabilities. When they were approached by a company board member, whose sibling had ALS and could not use the standard remote of Comcast® TV, the challenge normally fell to the team: how could they provide her with more control of television?
The team of Wlodkowski found that several people lacking good motor skills used eye trackers to interface with computers. Eye tracking devices shine infrared light to the eyes and follow pupils’ movement. This technology allows someone to use his or her gaze much like a mouse. They can linger on an icon or configure their device to a specific mode, where the closing of the eyes registers a “click”.
The Comcast® representative brought these devices into the laboratory and, following some experimentation, he made a web interface which pairs with them. Customers can visit that interface in their browser, sign in with their Comcast XFINITY® credentials, and pair an accessibility device with an existing set. With the special interface, an audience can control his or her TV with the eyes.
The latest web-based remote reproduces the X1 interface, collating everything on your television set, and in some situations, connecting home devices. The web-based remote provides controls for standard channels and on-demand content, in addition to applications such as Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora. It can communicate with XFINITY® Home services, having the capability to control connected thermostats and smart locks installed at home. Now, Wlodkowski says, customers will get the option to control all of that just with their eye-gaze program. Customers of the wireless provider can manage basic functions, such as changing the channel, adjusting the volume, looking for a film, or more complex ones such as unlocking their front door, just by moving the eyes around the monitor.
While an eye-controlled remote seems to serve a niche, Wlodkowski prefers to consider accessibility tech as a means to drive broader innovations for end consumers. Most people will not use the new TV remote now, but building these sorts of devices could facilitate new interactions for users later on.