Braille Monitor                                     November 2017

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Accessibly Cutting the Cord: Watching TV Without a Cable Subscription

by Karl Belanger

Karl BelangerFrom the Editor: Karl Belanger is an access technology specialist at the Jernigan Institute. He has worked for the National Federation of the Blind for just over three years, coming to this position after working as a consultant for web accessibility and access technology training. He is a helpful and giving human being with a very congenial personality. When I am at the Jernigan Institute and have a technical problem, he is always helpful, friendly, and responsive. But what is perhaps more important to our readers is that he makes the technical understandable and interesting. Here is what he has to say about alternatives to cable TV as we have known it:

With the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, online live TV services like Sling TV, and many other sources for audio and video content on the internet, ditching the cable box has never been more viable. Several devices have also been developed to get all this content from the internet to your TV. Some of the most common, which were tested for this article, are the Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku box, the NVidia Shield, and the Fire TV. All these options present both opportunities and challenges for blind users. Each device has slightly different levels of accessibility, a given app may be more or less accessible on a given device, and there may or may not be much in the way of documentation of the accessibility features. The National Federation of the Blind Access Technology Team recently tested several streaming boxes and evaluated the accessibility of each device as well as the accessibility of several common services. Most of the testing was conducted in June and July, and a live presentation of our findings was done at the 2017 NFB National Convention. Please keep in mind that, as with any technology these days, things change rapidly, and software updates will likely mean things are not exactly as I discuss in this article. While the overall experience regardless of device is positive, there are clear benefits and drawbacks to each. Some had more features but lacked app support. Others worked with more apps and channels, but had fewer accessibility options or lacked features. Some services and apps were more consistently accessible, while others varied widely between platforms. Keep reading for the full breakdown.

Each device went through a battery of tests which included the accessibility during setup, the overall interface, downloading apps, and the accessibility of several common apps and services.

The Devices

Device

Manufacturer

Price

Comments

Roku Player

Roku

$39+

Widest variety of TV content, inconsistent app accessibility and poor quality voice.

Fire TV

Amazon

$39+

Best for those using Amazon Prime video, solid native accessibility, third-party apps lacking

NVidia Shield

NVidia

$199

Android TV based, primarily focused on gaming, but reasonably strong accessibility across the board

Apple TV

Apple

$149-$199

Most consistent accessibility, may be missing a few services

Chromecast

Google

$35

Simplest, no device interface, setup accessible through app. Accessibility of desired service depends on accessibility of phone or computer interface.

Xbox One

Microsoft

$250+

Most advanced device, focused on gaming, strong native accessibility but very poor on third-party apps.

There is a vast amount of content available through the various devices and apps. From movies and TV shows with Netflix and Hulu, sports with ESPN, and live TV with Sling or DIRECTV now, to services like YouTube providing user-created content or apps for individual channels and creators, there’s something for everyone. Unfortunately, due to the vast number of options, it’s impossible to test everything. We have tested several of the more popular services, but, just like with a smartphone, it is necessary to download and try the apps you’re interested in. The good news is that, while many services may charge for a subscription, it is usually possible to browse and even play samples before purchasing, which should give a good indication of whether the app and service will be accessible.

Chromecast

The Chromecast is the simplest device, while at the same time the most nuanced and varied in terms of app accessibility. There is no device interface. Setup is handled through the mobile app, and then streaming and management of content is done through whatever service’s app you are wanting to stream from.

Setup

Setup of the Chromecast is extremely simple. Plug the device into a TV, attach the Micro USB charger, and launch the Google Home app. You will be prompted to set up the Chromecast. A four-character code will be displayed on the TV to verify that you are setting up the correct Chromecast, but unless you are setting up multiple devices at once, it is usually safe to just assume the device found is the correct one. There will then be a prompt to configure Wi-Fi followed by the prompt to sign into your Google Account. That’s it. You can then open up your favorite app such as Netflix or YouTube, press the Cast button, and start watching.

Watching content

Whether or not you can watch the content you want is going to depend on three things. Most importantly, does the app or service support the Chromecast? Not every service does, and there are lists of supported services online. If the service you want isn’t directly available, there may still be options which I will discuss later. The next factor will be which platform you’re using, PC/Mac, iOS, or Android. Lastly the accessibility of the specific service on your chosen platform will need to be taken into account. For example, Netflix on either iOS or Android is quite usable, but the web player used on computers is largely inaccessible, and you are unlikely to be able to find the cast button if using a screen reader. Fortunately, most services come with free trials, so it should be relatively easy to determine if your desired combination of service and platform will work for you. Once content is playing, simply find and press the cast button, select your Chromecast, and the video will transfer from the device to the TV. You can still control the playback, pause, rewind, fast forward, etc. from the phone, but the content is now being streamed directly to the Chromecast without going through the phone or device first.

If the content you want to watch isn’t from a directly supported service, you may still have options. When using Google Chrome on a PC or Mac, you can cast a specific tab from the computer to the TV. This will display any content, a web page, a video, etc. from the computer onto the TV by way of the Chromecast. Similarly, if the content is on an Android phone, many phones allow you to mirror the screen to the Chromecast, which sends all system video and audio to the TV.

Chromecast Accessibility

As mentioned earlier, the Google Home app is used to set up the Chromecast. This app and the Chromecast setup process are completely accessible. Once the Chromecast is up and running, it is possible to manage the device’s settings, screen saver, and other aspects of the Chromecast. As long as the underlying app is accessible, the process of sending video to the Chromecast is also accessible. Lastly, casting a tab in Chrome works well regardless of screen reader.

Roku Devices

Roku makes a number of streaming devices, from the Roku Express, a stick-like device designed for older TVs, to the Roku Ultra, a 4K-capable streaming box. Roku’s software is also included on a number of televisions. While some services, called channels on the Roku, work quite well, others are completely inaccessible. The other problem is that the voice is rather low quality, such that the letters B, C, D, E, G, P, T, and V all sound very similar.

Device setup

The Roku is unique in that it is the only device that requires going to the Roku site to finish setup. Pressing the options button four times (the button is to the right of the directional pad) will enable the audio guide. Once the Roku is connected to Wi-Fi, it will prompt you to go to a page on the Roku site and enter a code to finish setup. The online process is accessible, though we had to do some digging to find the hidden link which allows an account to be created without a credit card for testing purposes. Once an account is created, the Roku will load the main interface.

Using the Roku

The Roku interface consists of a list of categories down the left and content to the right. This general theme holds true throughout many of the channels and apps. The device interface is navigated using the four-way directional buttons on the remote. It is possible to download a wide variety of channels from the channel store and apps from their own section. The Roku differentiates between channels, which are generally from content providers and have a consistent interface, and apps such as YouTube, with which I had much less success.

Accessibility options

The Roku has basic options for accessibility. For the audio guide, they consist of on/off, volume, and speech rate. There are also options for closed captioning. Audio Guide is only available in US English and will be disabled if another language is selected. A function to route the Roku audio through the mobile app unfortunately disables Audio Guide. There are no settings for low vision, but the font is generally large and readable, and contrast is good. The only issues for those with low vision is that in some channels such as Netflix, thumbnail images are used for content, and the name is not displayed until that item gets focus.

When browsing, the name of the item, the index, and any other displayed info such as producer, runtime, etc. are announced automatically. However, there is no partial accessibility with this system; everything reads well, or the device goes completely silent. The Netflix account creation screen and the entire YouTube app are examples of this. There is no error message, no announcing of unlabeled buttons—it’s as if accessibility has been switched off. When typing, the keyboard is similar to a qwerty layout, and the voice announces the letter, followed a couple seconds later by the phonetic pronunciation. This is fortunate due to the unclear nature of many letters as I discussed earlier.

Browsing and playing content

As I mentioned previously, the Roku has arguably the largest spread of content available, and when the service is accessible, it performs quite well provided you can understand the Roku’s voice. Most channels have the categories, such as genres, featured, new releases, etc. down the left, with the relevant content accessed by pressing select and arrowing to the right. Once content is playing, pausing playback with the button in the second row below the directional buttons will allow access to the playback options including subtitles, language, and, if in Netflix or Amazon, audio description when available. Netflix, Amazon, Sling TV, and Twitch all performed solidly in testing, with YouTube and the Netflix account creation screens being the two major areas where access failed.

Using the companion app

Roku has a companion app for iOS and Android. After logging into your Roku account, you can see what’s currently playing on the device, browse your channels and watch something, and send audio from the Roku to your phone or tablet, which is called “Private Listening” mode. While the interface wasn’t the most intuitive, there were no major access issues. I was able to browse and get content playing. Once done, activating the private listening mode shuts off the Audio Guide, though the Roku remote can still control the device. Fortunately, when private listening is disabled, Audio Guide does come back automatically.

Fire TV

The Fire TV line of the devices, manufactured by Amazon, have solid accessibility and a much better voice than the Roku. However, many third-party apps struggle or fail completely when it comes to being accessible. A Fire TV comes integrated with Amazon’s services including Amazon video and music, and it may be the best choice for someone heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem. The Fire TV comes in both a stick and box form, with the latter packing slightly more powerful internals. The remote has a search/Alexa button at the top, followed by a navigation ring with a select button at the center, and two rows of buttons below that with Back, Home, and Menu in the first row, and Rewind, Play, and Fast Forward in the second. Navigating and watching content is intuitive, with tabs across the top and the content below it. As with the Roku, a couple apps simply failed to talk, while others had some unlabeled buttons.

Device setup

After plugging in a Fire TV device for the first time, press and hold Home (the middle button under the navigation ring) for up to ten seconds to pair the remote. Next, press the Back and Menu buttons (which are to either side of the Home button) for two seconds to enable VoiceView, and launch the tutorial. Once the tutorial is either completed or exited, the rest of the setup proceeds. This consists of connecting to Wi-Fi, creating or logging into your Amazon account, and possibly installing a software update. After that, you land on the home screen. It initially took a few attempts to pair the remote, but once that succeeded the rest of the process was routine.

Using the Fire TV

Like most of the devices we reviewed, the Fire TV has a grid of options and installed apps, with a tab bar across the top. Use the four sides of the navigation ring to move around the grid, and press the center button to select something. This layout is generally consistent for both the standard interface and apps.

Accessibility

Under the accessibility section of settings you will find the controls for VoiceView. These consist of on/off, volume, and voice rate. Under accessibility you will also find options for captions and a high contrast mode.

The voice that the Fire TV uses is from Ivona, a company bought by Amazon a few years ago. It is the same voice used on their Fire tablets and Kindle readers. VoiceView reads out items as they are focused, and there is a review mode that is accessed by holding the menu button to review onscreen text that’s not normally focusable. For apps which have been made accessible, everything works beautifully. However, the Fire TV is the first of these devices where we experience graduated levels of accessibility. In some apps, such as the MLV app, most of the buttons are unlabeled, though it is possible to navigate with VoiceView. Once again, the YouTube app and the Netflix create account screen both do not talk at all with VoiceView.

Browsing and playing content

Playing content works much like other devices reviewed here. Select the service and content you want with the navigation ring, and press the center button. Once content is playing, using the bottom row of three buttons controls playback, with Rewind, Play, and Fast Forward from left to right. Again, pausing the playback grants access to subtitle, language, and possibly audio description content when available in Netflix or Amazon video.

NVidia Shield

The NVidia Shield is a streaming box running Android TV. The Shield is definitely geared more toward gaming, as it comes with an Xbox style gaming controller in the box. The Shield remote consists of a navigation ring at the top, with Back and Home buttons underneath, and a Search button underneath that. The bottom of the remote has a touch-sensitive volume bar vertically down the center. While a neat idea in concept, in practice it is imprecise and often resulted in drastic volume changes when picking up the remote or even when the palm of my hand grazed it while navigating around the interface. Because this box is running on Android TV, it uses TalkBack as its screen reader. This has both benefits and drawbacks as we will see later.

Device setup

Setting up the device had to be done with sighted assistance. We attempted to enable talkback on the setup screen, and while the Shield indicated TalkBack was on, there was no spoken feedback. With sighted help, we proceeded through the setup screens which were simply the usual connect to Wi-Fi, install software updates, and sign into a Google account. Once the Shield was up and running, we were finally able to launch TalkBack through settings. Unfortunately, there were many navigation and focus issues until we updated TalkBack through the Play store. Finally, we were ready for testing.

Using the NVidia Shield

The home screen of the NVidia Shield has a grid of your installed apps at the top, followed by all the various Google Play apps, with links to various settings below that, and finally suggested games and apps you might like. As with other devices, use the navigation ring to move through the various screens, and press the center button to select something. Unlike the Roku or Fire TV, the layout is less consistent but is still generally straightforward. They usually consist of either a tab bar across the top with content below, or a vertical list on the left and a grid of content to the right.

Accessibility options

Since the Shield uses Android and TalkBack, many of the same accessibility options available on Android phones are present here also, including some that don’t apply such as the explore by touch setting. There is also the possibility to use alternate text-to-speech engines if desired. When using TalkBack, the first oddity that you’ll notice is that its accessibility hints are for a Bluetooth keyboard, not a remote. While this doesn’t break anything accessibility-wise, it could be confusing when a new user hears “Press Alt+Enter to activate.” Google should probably either come up with some generic hints for remote-based controls, or just do away with the hints entirely when using a remote. It is also important to make sure TalkBack is updated after initial setup. Before updating TalkBack, it wasn’t focusing some items, and I sometimes couldn’t activate some buttons in different apps. These problems went away once TalkBack was updated.

Browsing and playing content

The way you navigate with the Shield should be quite familiar by now. Move around with the navigation ring, and press the center button to play something. The difference here is there is no dedicated ‘play’ button. Instead, once content starts playing, pressing the center button brings up a set of onscreen playback controls, similar to how content is handled on a phone. Navigate to and press the desired button to pause, rewind, etc. Depending on the app being used, there is also likely a control to bring up a menu with the usual subtitle, language, and audio description options.

There were two main app accessibility issues encountered when doing testing. The first is, you guessed it, the inaccessible Netflix sign up screen, though this one adds in its own brand of extra fun. The Back button on the remote, which will back you out of the screen on all other devices, does nothing here. You either have to navigate to the inaccessible Back button and press it with no speech feedback, or press the Home button and go do something else until the Netflix app gets closed by the system and you can sign in properly. Once signed in, the app works beautifully as always. The second problem is not the YouTube app, which actually works quite well. Rather it is the Amazon video app. There seems to be a conflict between it and TalkBack, because there is an announcement that text-to-speech is active after signing in, but pressing any of the directional buttons does nothing, even visually. The only option from here is to press the Home button and go onto something else.

The Shield also has a large variety of games available, but they are largely inaccessible and are outside the scope of this article.

The Android TV Remote app

During testing we located a third-party Android TV remote app for iOS. This app provides an accessible way of remotely controlling the NVidia Shield from an iPhone. The app provides two different interfaces. The first shows the various buttons on the remote. It is possible to flick through and double-tap them with VoiceOver, and they’re all labeled. The second method has a touchpad which works with VoiceOver’s direct touch feature, where it is possible to flick left, right, up, or down to simulate pressing the buttons, and tap to activate. There is no ability to search for shows or stream audio to the app, but the remote functions are solid and accessible.

Apple TV

Since VoiceOver was introduced in the Apple TV second generation, it has been the first and often only stop for blind consumers looking for an accessible streaming box. With the second and third generation Apple TV, the user experience was tightly controlled by Apple, meaning that users could generally expect a solid, accessible experience no matter what channel was added. Things have changed somewhat with the current fourth generation. The App Store has come to the Apple TV along with third-party apps. This means that app developers now control the accessibility of their app rather than Apple. The good news is that many apps are at least as usable and often more accessible than their phone counterparts. But as with every other app and operating system, not everything is perfect. The remote on the Apple TV is also rather different than the rest. It charges via lightning cable and has a touch sensitive surface at the top. Below this are a column of three buttons on the left consisting of Back, Siri, and Play/Pause from top to bottom. To the right of this is another column consisting of a Home button at the top, then a long up/down volume button. Navigating the Apple TV is done with many of the same VoiceOver gestures you would use on the iPhone.

Device setup

On first setup, pressing the menu button three times quickly will launch VoiceOver. You can either set up the Apple TV by giving it the same account and network settings from a nearby iPhone, or you can enter things manually. The manual setup is a straightforward lineup of language, network, Apple ID, and permission setting. The only downside in this process, which isn’t necessarily related to accessibility, is that the keyboard is in one long line, and it doesn’t wrap. For example, to type just the first three letters of Washington, starting from the letter A, you’d need to flick twenty-two times right to W, twenty-two times left back to A, then eighteen times right to the S, continuing in this way through the rest of the word. This gets very tedious very quickly. A Bluetooth keyboard can be configured once things are up and running, but this doesn’t help during setup.

Using the Apple TV

The Apple TV’s home screen is rather different than some of the other devices. It is a grid with five columns and as many rows as there are apps to fill them. Swiping in any direction will move the cursor in that direction and read out the item in focus. To select something, use a single click of the remote. Apple refers to it as a tap, but just tapping the remote won’t do anything. You need to apply enough pressure to feel a slight click. Assuming you signed into an Apple ID, you can simply go to the App store, to the purchases tab, and download any prior purchases that have Apple TV apps. These will get added to your home screen at the end of the list of current apps, as will anything new you download.

Accessibility options

In the accessibility section of settings, there is a slimmed down version of the VoiceOver settings on a regular iPhone. You can adjust the speech rate, choose from several different voices, edit a pronunciation dictionary, turn on or off the triple press menu shortcut, and more. It is also possible to enable Zoom, Apple TV’s magnification, from the accessibility settings menu. You can specify to always display captions and/or always play audio descriptions when available. VoiceOver and Zoom can also be turned on or off from anywhere by asking Siri. Hold in the middle button in the left column and say, “turn on VoiceOver.”

VoiceOver on the Apple TV retains much of the feel of VoiceOver on the iPhone, with a few notable differences. Three finger gestures aren’t supported on the Apple TV, I suspect partially because there really isn’t enough room on the remote. The rotor is present with many of the usual options. In the default mode, called Explore, flicking in any of the four directions functions equivalently to using the directional buttons on the other devices. Once the rotor has been changed to another setting, flicking up and down will move by the selected unit, while flicking left or right will immediately return the rotor to its default setting and navigation will resume as normal.

Browsing and playing content

Apple TV is tightly integrated with other Apple services. Your purchased music and videos and your Apple Music subscription are all immediately available. All your purchased or rented TV shows and movies appear in the TV app. From here you can also browse and search for shows you may want to watch. Accessibility across many of the major services is very strong. Netflix, YouTube, Sling TV, ESPN, and others all were very accessible. In the case of Sling, it worked far better than the iPhone version. When playing music, the music will keep playing while you navigate the interface, but video will stop when you leave the playback screen. Finding and playing content from Netflix or any other app works much like the other devices discussed. Once something is playing, use the Play/Pause button in the bottom left in conjunction with the touch interface to manipulate the playback and select the usual options.

The Remote app

There is an Apple TV remote app for iOS. Similar to the Android TV app, it allows you to manipulate the Apple TV from an iPhone. The interface uses direct touch, but it was inconsistent. Focus kept moving to one of the surrounding buttons, it would interpret the wrong gesture, and things were just generally flaky. If you want to use a different interface than the remote, I’d recommend a Bluetooth keyboard over the app.

Xbox One

The Xbox One, unlike the other boxes discussed, is primarily targeted at gamers. All the main interface, the Microsoft account integration, and the main apps available are games and gaming-related. The Xbox has Narrator built in. Narrator works almost identically to the Windows 10 version if you’re using a keyboard. If using a controller, you can toggle between a mode controlling the Xbox and a special narrator mode for reviewing onscreen text. While the native interface works quite well, many of the apps we tried provided little or no accessibility. As such I would not recommend an Xbox for entertainment purposes at this time.

Conclusion

As you can see, several viable options are out there when it comes to streaming content to a TV. Whether you want the dead simple Chromecast, the very accessible Apple TV, the Alexa integration of the Fire TV, or the content availability on the Roku, the choice really comes down to personal preference. No device is perfectly accessible, but yet none are completely unusable. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Roku all have accessibility pages for the various devices where you can learn more, and I would encourage you to reach out to both device manufacturers and app developers to encourage them to continue improving the accessibility of their apps.

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