Government developing 'talking' set-top box for blind citizens

Voice-assisted set-top box for blind, vision impaired citizens may be distributed under Household Assistance Scheme

Digital TV switchover Household Assistance Scheme

Several Australian companies are developing 'talking' digital TV set-top boxes that provide synthetic speech descriptions of electronic program guide data, program information and menu options. These digital TV set-top boxes have already been trialled in Australia during the digital TV switchover in regional Victoria, and could be distributed to blind or vision-impaired pensioners around Australia as part of the Federal Government's digital TV switchover Household Assistance Scheme.

The Household Assistance Scheme, earmarked at $308.8million in the 2011-12 Federal Budget, aims to provide eligible pensioners with access to free or subsidised digital TV set-top boxes as well as necessary installation, education and support services. Pensioners eligible for the full rate of the Disability Support Pension, including blind and vision-impaired citizens, are covered under the Household Assistance Scheme.

A recent survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that around 400,000 people in Australia are blind or have some degree of vision loss that affects their ability to read print, restricting their access to many of the services digital TV offers. Almost 12000 Australians are on the Disability Support Pension, while another 16000 receive the Aged Pension (Blind).

Digital Switchover Taskforce public affairs manager Matt Francis said the technology was new to Australia and that testing had been undertaken, but no guarantees could be made on whether talking set-top boxes would be covered by the upcoming Scheme. "This kind of technology has been developed in other countries, but there is currently no talking set-top box available in the Australian marketplace.

"The talking set-top box trial has been conducted in the regional Victoria switchover. [It] is designed to help people who are blind or have a vision impairment to navigate the electronic program guide, digital text, on-screen menus and the settings of their TV."

The Victorian trial of the talking set-top boxes has been completed, and the DBCDE will have a final report by late June this year. According to Mr Francis, no decisions have been made as to whether the talking set-top boxes would be included in the Household Assistance Scheme.

Francis also said that money for the trial came from an existing Government allocation. "The trial was funded as part of the regional Victoria switchover and is not part of the $308.8m allocated for the Household Assistance Scheme through to 2013." The testing and development of talking set-top boxes has been part of the Digital Switchover Taskforce's mission since the process began: "Set-top boxes designed to meet the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities [have] been a requirement of the scheme since its inception."

Prototype talking set-top boxes from Hills TechLife and Skybridge were used for the Victorian trial, but Australian digital TV manufacturer Bush is also testing and refining a prototype. Bush Australia also owns the Grundig home entertainment brand and has a range of digital TV set top boxes. It is not yet known whether any talking set-top boxes will be made available for retail purchase in Australia.

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