Category Archives: Smart home devices

My journey to the cool Amazon “Show and Tell” feature discovering along the way that the Echos Show 5 and 8 won’t ever be able to support it.

Posted Tuesday, December 3, 2019
One of the bigger challenges for a blind person is quickly identifying things that aren’t physically unique or labeled in braille. This is one of the frustrations technology has helped in a big way.

The first device that made a significant breakthrough in this area, was the I.D. Mate. A talking barcode reader with a built-in database of products. It was very cool, very efficient and also very expensive; still costs $1299 today. I considered buying one in the fall of 2007, but now am happy I didn’t.

I did however, in late 2009, buy a $300 USB barcode reader and attach it to a netbook which I already owned and had been using. Still expensive, but way less than the I.d. Mate. It also meant I had to keep the netbook on top of the microwave and plugged in. It did work though, was faster than more modern solutions still today, but it was also cumbersome and I finally gave up on it.

There are several nice apps, like Seeing AI,  for either or both iOS and Android that can identify barcodes today. The problem is the APIs assume that the barcode can be visually aligned in the camera view. The app developers have offered beeps to help the blind user do this, but it’s still not as efficient as a dedicated scanner. Smartphones are way more mobile than my old USB barcode scanner attached to my netbook though, so it’s still somewhat of an improvement.

The only annoyance for me in using a smartphone is placing round containers on the counter and then them rolling around; even holding them with one hand, I wished that I could have both hands free to position the item I was identifying.

Enter the Echo Show from Amazon. When the first generation Echo Show was announced with it’s flashy screen so you could watch videos in the kitchen I thought that was the most useless thing ever for a blind person; but then Amazon announced the “Show and Tell” feature in their September 2019 release. I was interested, and decided to go for it.

The Echo Show 5, their most recently announced version seemed the best for me. It was small and cheap, too cheap. I got it and then found it didn’t support Show and Tell. Amazon still says the feature is supported by Echo Show, first and second generation. The Echo Show 5 doesn’t have generation anywhere in its name, but I figure it’s new why wouldn’t it support show and tell. I then found it can’t, because its camera is only 1 mega pixel; I’m still wondering why anyone would want a camera that anemic. Pretty bad if i, totally blind knows 1 megapixel is that bad.

The problem is though, that it really  is that bad, it means that a blind person, who doesn’t need a screen at all can’t buy the least expensive visual models, grumble. This also excludes the new Echo Show 8, still only 1 megapixel camera, frown. The Echo Show  first generation is the best way to go. It’s around $100 for as long as it’s still available, the second generation is $230. More than twice the price, with very little benefit if you can’t see it.

It’s been setup in my kitchen for almost two months now, on top of the microwave, but still smaller than my old netbook. I find identifying food faster and do find having both hands to hold items as convenient as I had imagined. Its database is somewhat limited, but still not bad. I’m guessing it will grow over time. Some times if it can’t identify something exactly, it will read some of the text it can see which can be just as successful in my opinion.

turning on VoiceView, Amazon’s screen reader is easy, and adds some nice capabilities to the Show, and VoiceView gestures are very similar to those in VoiceOver on Apple’s iOS. The Echo Show, first generation, is definitely worth it, even if you’re totally blind and can’t see the screen. The Show and tell feature is more convenient than scanning barcodes with a smartphone, and it will be able to use the “cook to scan” technology if you ever decide to get the new Amazon smart oven in the future.

Yes, I later realized I could put the phone on the counter face down, and then have both hands to position items to be identified, but am still glad I got the Echo Show. It is always ready to identify things for me, even if my phone is in another room, or doing something else.

How the Amazon Basics microwave oven has replaced the much more expensive talking microwaves made specifically for the blind

Posted on Friday September 6, 2019

In summer 1981 between my fifth and sixth grade years, my parents and I visited my oldest sister Kathi in Colorado. She had a microwave oven, and her kids who were in grade school could use it to cook or reheat foods. Kathy thought it would be good for me also, as it would be safer than a stove.
Later that summer Mom and Dad bought one.

Although not the panacea originally thought as, the microwave is still quite useful I use it almost every day. The model I’d been using from 2001-2018 was the Panasonic mid sized model, though I had to buy a second one after the first one died in 2014 but hey 12 years isn’t bad.
Still one problem for blind people with just about any microwave though, is that they have flat panels so if you’re blind it was hard to know where the buttons were. Many of us found ways to braille labels and put them on to the microwave panels. Braille takes up a lot of space though, so some of us also , used Highmarks, or fabric paint, which is much cheaper, to save space; but there was only so much room. This meant not all of the more advanced features or any features selected from a menu were usable unless memorized.
There were talking microwave ovens made specifically for blind people to use, but they were significantly more expensive, costing as much as $400,  and often hard to find. Some of them also didn’t have as many features or were lower powered.

Then last summer Amazon announced their Amazon Basics microwave oven, and you could control it with any of their Amazon Echo  devices.
I read reviews when they came out, but sadly many people thought it was silly or only a novelty. Why control something with your voice when the buttons are right there. They seemed not to think about how much more convenient it might be for someone with a disability, or even for someone without any disability at all. They also mentioned that the Amazon microwave was under powered, and it is at only 700 wats, and it is also smaller, so it may not serve a family of more than 2 people very well, but it’s a start. With that in mind I still felt it was an ok experiment.

It showed up, I plugged it in, and it configured itself. Because I had already configured an Amazon echo device, it knew my wifi network, and once on there, it also set the correct time. Awesome, now my sighted friends won’t have to tell me that the clock isn’t set anymore.
I still had a friend mark the microwave with fabric paint though, and one day when there was an internet outage I had to press the buttons like an animal. Most of the time though, , unless in a phone call, I control it with my voice.
One can say things like “Alexa, Cook microwave for 3 minutes” and it will do that, you can also say “at power x” where x is from 1 to 10. I also had marked the popcorn bacon defrost and reheat buttons on previous microwaves I’d owned, but this was about the most a blind person can do with most models.
With the Amazon model, you can say things as advanced as, “Alexa, Cook 8 ounces of broccoli,” “cook one cup, (or bowl), of soup;” “cook one cup of coffee. saying heat also works. baking a potato also works. There are more commands, I’ve only mentioned a few here.
One might say that’s cool and all, but the expensive talking microwaves specifically for the blind could tell you how much time was left in cooking. That’s true, but you can get the same on the Amazon microwave as well. You can also add more time while it’s cooking; so if you say “Alexa add 1 second to microwave,” it will tell you something like “cooking 45 seconds on power 10.”

It is true that the Amazon basics microwave is under powered, so it takes a bit longer to cook things, but at the end of the day, it’s really not that big of a deal. It is also quite small, large dishes may not fit. I still call my experiment a success with a few miner caveats.

General Electric also has a model of microwave for about $150 that can be controlled by an Amazon device. It is larger, 0.9 cubic feet,  and runs at up to 900 wats, so also not as under powered. It also has a feature where you can scan barcodes on frozen food packaging with your smartphone, after which your phone will look up cooking directions and send them to the microwave. This in the reviews I read seemed not to work so well, but hey probably future models will get better.

Even if one  bought the GE model and an Amazon Echo Dot   for around $200 , they could have a talking microwave for about half the price  than one of those previously mentioned talking models specifically for the blind. As I have said, mainstream device plus talking cell phone, or in this case Amazon echo device, equals talking, or accessible mainstream device. Seemingly novelty features to many are game changing accessibilities for others. Designing with inclusion from the start, is always the best way to go.


Appended on April 11, 2020

Shortly after I wrote this article, Amazon announced their Amazon smart oven.  It costs $250 so still less expensive than some of those talking microwaves made for the blind, and does way more. Yes, it can be a microwave, but it can also be a food warmer, a convection oven, and an air fryer. It is also bigger, 1.5 cubic feet. It is very cool.

How to set up an iDevices switch as a blind person.

Posted on December 18, 2018

All over the internet you can find people write phrases like: “first world problems”. Here’s one probably most people haven’t heard before: “blind world problems”. E.g. problems sighted people will probably never experience.
Earlier this month, I setup my first iDevices switch, but until I knew what I was   doing, it was quite a challenge. I had bought it some time ago so I didn’t have the box anymore, so I  couldn’t get the number needed to set it up in the iDevices app from there. I looked all around on the device for the number using Seeing AI (except for the side with the plug that goes into the wall, didn’t think it would be there) and and gave up for the day. The next day, I got sighted help and was told it was on the side by the plug, that faces the wall, where I didn’t look. So blind readers, the 8 digit number you need for setting up iDevices is on the side of the switch facing the wall , in the space  closest to where you would plug in the thing you want to  control. .
Once I knew that, setting up the switch was very easy. Both Seeing AI and the iDevices app could see it, and the iDevices app is quite accessible.
There are 2 ways to get the number of your iDevice switch into the app during setup. You could paste or type it in to the edit box, but I just capture it with my iPhone’s camera, which, even as a blind person is very doable. When the app wants the number and displays the camera view:
1. Make sure you have good lighting, Even if you used the flash, which the iDevices app isn’t capable of, the number seems unreadable in low light.
2 place the iDevice switch on a flat surface with the plug that goes into the wall facing up.
3. hold the phone directly   above the switch  so the camera lens is positioned next to the plug that goes into the wall, towards   where you would plug in the thing to control.
4. Slowly raise the phone straight up about 1cm per second. You should hear that the number capture was successful within 5 seconds or so.
Beyond that, the setup was very easy and accessible.
People say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I needed almost that many to try and explain where the number was on the switch. Let me know if it made sense. 
One more thing,   I use the same camera technique mentioned above for capturing the number on the iDevices switch when I setup my Apple watch. It  works very well there also.