A Weekend with PS4: My Thoughts on the PS4’s new Text to Speech Feature

It’s so easy for the sighted to completely overlook. It’s just one option, one setting, sitting there amongst the rest. Yet, for the blind, it represents the biggest change in video game console accessibility of all time. It’s something we’ve always wanted, but were never really confident we’d have. Now, at last, it’s here, and we can’t stop talking about it.
As has been pretty widely advertised at this point, the Playstation 4 has gained an accessibility menu. In amongst features for enhanced zoom, and button mapping, is the surprising inclusion into the accessibility lineup, text to speech. For the very first time, the totally blind have access to some parts of their video game console that, before, we would have simply ignored. Still, my opinion on this feature developed over time. Over a weekend, in fact. So now, I want to take you along with me on that journey. A journey of discovery, and of appreciation. Then, I want to try and express just how monumentally huge and important this is. Let’s see if I can do both.
When I first activated the Text to Speech feature, which I did with the help of my sighted fiance Misty, my initial reaction was disappointment. Immediately upon activation, there was no voice informing me that it was on, or ready, or anything of that sort. I hopped around the settings menu for a few seconds, and still nothing. “Really?” I thought. “Not even settings?”
So I backed out to the home screen of the PS4, hoping that maybe the TTS was just set up in such a way that the setting didn’t apply until you exited the settings menu, and that now it would begin speaking. Still no luck. I moved around the home screen, desperately hoping it would say that name of one of the games there. I went to the upper menu, hoping that something would be spoken as I moved over its options. Settings, friends, still nothing.
Finally, I managed to locate both the messages, and party options, and pressed X on them. At last, speech. Still, the feeling of disappointment didn’t quite go away. After all, I had heard that TTS would be included in the latest update, and I had hoped, hoped to the point of despiration, that it would cover everything. The home screen, the store, Playstation Now, all of it. It was a bit of a blow to see this was not the case.
I didn’t have too much time to experiment that night, but I still mulled it over. I realized quickly that the TTS being present at all was nothing short of incredible. So what if it doesn’t read everything? It’s there. It has never been there before. So my disappointment became a mere blip on my radar of awesomeness.
Then, over the weekend, I got a chance to experiment fully with what the TTS did support, and I was amazed. I had a fantastic time startnig a party, inviting my friends to it, chatting with them there, and even starting a Shareplay session so I could be spectated. A couple times, I even handed over the controller, (both first and second player), to play with those who were also in my party. I sent both text and voice messages back and forth, and marveled at the ease of use of the on screen keyboard. I learned the shortcuts for the keyboard, which I had no cause to do before now. I did all this using TTS. I could do none of this before TTS was added to the PS4. It was an incredible weekend, and it rekindled my love for that system.
That was my journey, and half the reason I needed to write this blog. The other half is this. I want to make it known to as many people as I can how amazing, and important a step this is in the accessibility of video games. This is a doorway, folks. It’s not the only one, but it is another one, and it’s cracked open. If Sony fills out this feature, it will crack open even wider. Blind people all over the place will purchase PS4’s if they know they can use every single aspect of it. Some are doing it now, and this is only the first iteration of TTS. Then, thinking bigger here, if Sony establishes some sort of hook into the TTS, even game developers can use it, and make their own games more accessible, perhaps even playable with the addition of spoken text.
Thinking bigger than that, if we fling the door all the way open, what about the competition? If this feature gets enough attention, then why wouldn’t Sony’s competitors, like Microsoft, jump on the opportunity to make their own version of this? And if they do, well, competition breeds quality. At least it should. The winners here are us, the gamers, specifically the blind gamers. This truly is huge, and however far that door opens, I for one cannot wait.

Guest Blog Alert!

Hi folks!
Just wanted to tell the world that I did a guest blog for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The article of course, was all about blind gaming! Its aim is more exposure. Exposure to both blind people who don’t realize video games are a possibility, and sighted people who, well, don’t realize the exact same thing. The link to the article is below! Enjoy!

Accessibility in Games: An Interview with Brandon Cole now live!

Hi folks!
Quick news post here to link to an interview I did for a web site called Pop Culture Uncovered. They talk about just about everything pop culture and geek-related, including games, and they found me. Specifically, a writer of theirs named Alex Krefetz found me, and interviewed me. Here, just for you, is a link to that interview. It is my hope that others outside the blind community see this interview, and take what I say to heart.
http://popcultureuncovered.com/2014/10/22/accessibility-in-games-an-interview-with-brandon-cole-a-gamer-who-plays-without-sight/

Playstation Not Now, Blind Folks

Great news, guys! I had a positive experience with PlayStation Now! You know, Sony’s game streaming service that just about everyone else on the internet says is horrible, and awful, and all sorts of other things? Yeah, that service. I’m happy to report that I tried the open beta on PS4, played a game, specifically Dynasty Warriors 7, and experienced, totally not kidding here, little to no latency at all. There were a few stutters and skips here and there, but it was all perfectly tolerable, and in my opinion, it was a fun 4 hours.
However, you may have noticed that the title of this article isn’t exactly a positive one. The fun I had playing that game streamed from the cloud came with a bit of a cost. I couldn’t have done it alone. While I think PlayStation Now is a great concept and is going to be, in time, a great service, it is not the most user friendly one.
The way it currently works is like this. You rent games for varying amounts of time from the PlayStation Now section of the PSN store. Currently there is no option to buy, and rumor has it there may be a subscription option later. Now you may be thinking, “But wait! You can access the store from the web site, and it’s totally accessible and great and grand and wonderful, so ha!” Well, the web version of the store does not contain the PlayStation Now section. At present it can only be accessed from the PlayStation Store on the PS4 itself. This is a huge issue, as the store basically remains inaccessible to the blind via the console. We have no way of telling which game we’re choosing, and in this case how much our rental will cost, as prices vary from game to game.
There is a small positive right now, though. Once a game is actually rented and played once, it does appear in your list of games on the PS4 home screen. Remember how I talked about everything being in a straight line from left to right in the PS4 article? Yeah, it’ll show up there. So once someone basically rents a game for us, we do have access to it from that point forward, but really that’s not the point here. The point is that it’s impossible for us to use the service independently as it currently stands. I believe this would be fixable if Sony added the PlayStation Now section to the web store, but would they be able to interface enough between web store and console to add it to our home screen as well? That I’m not sure about.
A nonaccessibility-related side note in case you’re wondering. When you play a PlayStation Now game, you’re basically playing on a virtual PS3 somewhere else. You do have saved games, and they are stored for you in the cloud. Your saves do persist across rentals, so you can rent again at another time and keep going. Furthermore, since you really are basically playing a PS3, you can play online games with people who own the disc-based version of the game you rented. It is a bit annoying that the cloud for PlayStation Now is diferent than the cloud you can upload saves to from an actual PS3, because it means that if you own a PS3, rent a game on PlayStation Now, like it, and buy the disc-based version, you can’t bring your save to that version. Still, I mention all these things to demonstrate that the service itself is, overall, a pretty good one. It’s just a little sad that for us blind people, as of right now, it’s PlayStation NOt Now.

Xbox One: What we Know

Well folks, the Xbox One is out. I don’t have mine yet, but I’d like to take the time to go over what we know from an accessibility standpoint regarding the Xbox One. I’ll talk about further coverage at the end of all this.

Let’s face facts. The Xbox 360 is already a pretty accessible console, just as the PS3 was. I suspect that, just like with the PS4, this preexisting accessibility will feed into how accessible the Xbox One is. For one thing, we’ve got Kinect. The Kinect 2.0 is supplied with every Xbox One, so everyone who gets one will have this device. Now, I did rant about the Kinect before, but it’s because I didn’t like the fact that at the time, we were going to be forced to hook it up whether we wanted to or not. Now that that’s not the case, it is good to know that Kinect functionality has improved. You can be more precise and direct with voice commands. Whereas on the 360 you still had to memorize menus, (where your games were and what page they were on), that’s not true with the Xbox One. Just tell the Kinect to “go to” the game you want to play, and you’ll be there. I’ve heard this requires a bit of precision on the title of a game, though. For instance, I heard one testimony that if you get the Ultra Edition of Killer Instinct, and then say “Xbox, go to Killer Instinct,” it will actually launch the arcade port of the original Killer Instinct that comes with the Ultra edition. So to be truthful, I have no idea how to launch the new Killer Instinct with your voice, since as far as I know it’s also just called Killer Instinct.

Now, we talk about the menu. Yes, the new Xbox One is using a Windows 8 style tile system, but honestly from the sounds I’ve heard so far, it kinda still sounds like it should be just about as easy to move through as the Xbox360. Furthermore, there may be an aspect of the menu that you might think we would have no use for, but may actually be quite useful for us. One of the Xbox One’s new features is called pins. It allows you to take your favorite things, be they movies, games, or even songs if I understand it correctly, and pin them. If this works the way I think it does, it may actually mean an easy way to get to what we really want to play even without our voices. If we can find where all our pinned items are, they should never change unless we change them. So maybe, hopefully, this is the answer to the Killer Instinct problem as well.

All these things, combined with the existing web accessibility and the seemingly useable Xbox One Smartglass ap, do make the Xbox One look promising from an accessibility standpoint. Despite all the negativity the Xbox One has suffered, even over the past week, it is here, and it is a next gen console. It is a choice for those seeking to break into the next generation of gaming, and so you can be assured that I will cover it as best I can, in an effort to definitively answer all these questions, and maybe find out a few more surprising things along the way.

However, this brings me to how I’m going to cover the xbox One. I will do so, no question, but the problem is that I have to work. I will not be here when the Xbox One arrives, and I work weekends. So if it’s fast coverage you’re looking for, you may have to settle for blogs, written in the time before I have to go to work based on what little we’ll be able to try with the time I have. I may do a stream next Tuesday or Wednesday, as I don’t have to work those days, but what I do will be very dependent on what people want me to do. Yes, folks, I’m seeking your feedback. Send me an email, message me on twitter @superblindman, message me on facebook if you want. Let me know how you want me to approach this, as no matter what it will be different than the PS4 launch. This isn’t by choice, it’s just the way it is. Regardless of how, though, I’ll see you guys very soon with more Xbox One coverage.