Video Game Console Accessibility for the Blind takes ONE Step Forward

Ladies and gentlemen, today, Thursday, November 12, marks another step forward in the accessibility of home video game consoles. Today, Text to Speech arrived on Xbox One! The most readily apparent fact is that now, both current generation consoles have text to speech capability of some sort, but this post is here to specifically discuss the feature on Xbox One. And so, without further adue, let’s begin.
Activating Narrator, (the name of the text to speech software on the Xbox One, and by no coincidence, the name used for Microsoft’s text to speech software within Windows), is super easy. If you have a Kinect, simply say Xbox, Turn on Narrator. Within seconds, you’ll here the words “Starting Narrator.” But hey, even if you don’t have a Kinect, activating Narrator is as easy as holding the Xbox button, then pressing the menu button. Awesome, right?
Now, those who have a Kinect do have one particularly annoying issue to look forward to, especially if their system is new. Narrator cannot be activated until the Kinect is calibrated for sound. The reason for this is that, since Narrator will be reading your Xbox for you, it will likely say the word Xbox several times. Xbox, of course, is the word that triggers Kinect voice commands, so the Kinect needs to be able to differentiate between your voice and other background noise, and the speech coming from the TV or speaker system.
Once narrator has begun, navigating the various screens is a pretty simple afair. At the top, you have several tabs, including home, community, games, apps, One Guide, movies and TV, and music. Once you’ve selected the one you want with the left and right arrow keys on the controller, you can scroll through that tab with the up and down arrow keys. If you reach an item that Narrator calls a section button, this indicates a deeper list of items that can be moved through with the left and right arrows. For example, navigate to the games tab, and scroll to New Releases. This will be a “section button.” Move left and right to hear all the games released recently, and if you like, press A to select one.
Pressing left from the first tab on the home screen brings you to the guide window, where you can read your notifications, access your friends list, read messages, and so on. All of this appears to be accessible. From here, friends can even be invited to the game you’re playing, or you can join one that they are playing.
This kind of basic navigation will get you through most menus. It will allow you to do everything from browsing your library and launching games, to purchasing new games and content from the store on the console. Yes, there is a working web store we can already use, but now, well, just imagine! At last, we can make those impulse buys just like everyone else!
There are, in fact, very few things that don’t work. Almost the entire community tab is completely inaccessible, which is too bad but not horrible. The one and only thing I really, really didn’t like is that the Achievements screen is also utterly inaccessible. Sometimes it will read enough to let you know there are things there, but you won’t know what those things are. That, certainly, is one thing that could be fixed.
Also, it should be noted that third party apps do not function with Narrator. Skype does to some extent, but then Skype is now a Microsoft app. Other apps like Netflix, Hulu, and so on, won’t work with Narrator at all, though I could see this being technically possible in the future. We’ll see.
Aside from some lag issues and the above mentioned unreadables, there aren’t many problems with the new Narrator feature. There are things that remain untested, such as whether or not the acquisition of achievements is spoken aloud, but I can confidently say that this was a very good first attempt at Xbox One accessibility from Microsoft.
I want to make clear here that I am in no way hating on the Playstation 4. The fact that both consoles are accessible to the blind is more than just good, it’s incredible. The fact that the Xbox One’s accessibility is, for the moment, quite a bit better should not be viewed as a competitive victory, it should be viewed as a step forward for all accessible video gaming. Competition breeds results. Perhaps Sony will take note, and the next time their text to speech feature is updated, perhaps it will be a massive, game changing update. Only time will tell, and right now, the future looks pretty bright for the blind.
One last thing. As long as it’s available, you can check out my audio demonstration of the Xbox One’s Narrator feature using this link. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and found it informative, but regardless, keep on gaming, and keep shouting out your desire for accessibility in both games and consoles alike!