Last week, it was announced that the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is making thousands of audiobooks from its talking books library available to its members directly through Amazon Alexa.
The creation of The Alexa Talking Books skill offers up a wonderfully elegant example of the ways in which mainstream and assistive technologies can evolve and intersect providing universal benefits all around.
Previously, the U.K. charity’s reading and lending services involved audiobooks from the library’s 30,000-strong collection being posted out as a CD or USB Drive in the specialized DAISY format, which provides a useful non-visual interface for general navigation and bookmarking.
More recently, the library, which served as a lifeline for isolated visually impaired people during the Covid-19 pandemic, sending out 1.33 million books over the past 12 months, has expanded its offering to include a digital download service.
Now, all users need to do to access the vast collection spanning fiction and non-fiction titles, is say, “Alexa, open RNIB Talking Books.”
Users of the free service, subsidized to the tune of some £4 million annually by RNIB, will also be able to ask Alexa to search by book title, author and keyword.
Commenting on the development, David Clarke, Director of Services at RNIB said, “Voice-activated technology is bringing us closer to a world where blind and partially sighted people can consume books on a level playing field with sighted people.”
Recapturing lost pleasures
The story behind the creation of the Talking Book is yet another neat illustration of how technology originally designed to help people with disabilities has, over the decades, gained widespread mainstream popularity.
Currently, over 67 million Americans enjoy the unique immersion and lean-back experience provided by audiobooks annually according to the Audio Publisher’s Association, whilst sales of audiobooks in 2019 totaled $1.2 billion.
A significant number of veterans of the Great War lost their sight during combat and one such serviceman, Captain Ian Fraser, who was blinded by a sniper in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, returned from war determined to recapture the magic of reading for comrades in a similar position and the wider VI community.
Fraser began working at the National Institute for the Blind, which later became the RNIB, with a focus on devising a format that could help those struggling to learn braille and began experimenting with audio recordings on shellac discs, more commonly known as 78-speed records.
Early Talking Books and poetry collections often required multiple discs to include the entire volume.
During the 1930s, parallel efforts to provide audio alternatives to help blind veterans to read were underway in the U.S., with the American Foundation for the Blind and Library of Congress Books for the Adult Blind Project establishing the Talking Books Program.
The first novel to be remastered as a Talking Book was Harper Collins’ The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie in 1935, which took up 10 discs!
Since this time, the format has piggy-backed hardware developments for music consumption — moving onto cassette tapes in the late 1960s and 70s, spurred on by the popularity of devices like the Walkman and cassette decks in cars.
For a while, CDs became the prominent format but these were gradually overtaken just over a decade ago by digital download.
Some of the key reasons digital services like Amazon-owned Audible are so incredibly popular today amongst mainstream consumers is that they allow books to be enjoyed while multitasking, which includes anything from driving to physical exercise or carrying out domestic chores.
Amazon Alexa — a gamechanger for the disabled?
Interestingly, considering this journey of an assistive technology created for disabled people eventually permeating into the mainstream, the trajectory for Amazon Alexa, which came on the market in 2014, was in precisely the opposite direction.
Though, today, many users may profess to not being able to be without their favorite voice assistant, many of the day-to-day conveniences Alexa offers remain neat but somewhat trivial.
Yes, being able to turn on your thermostat with your voice or request the weather forecast for the day ahead is a fun glimpse into a voice-activated future of ubiquitous invisible computing.
Nevertheless, humankind was hardly on its knees due to not being able to accomplish such tasks via voice back in 2013.
Rather, Amazon’s smart speaker is evidently an important platform device and a starting point for more intelligent, dare one say humanlike, smart speakers and assistants that are certain to arrive on the market in the future.
However, the one population segment for whom Alexa has quite possibly proved entirely transformative, even in its early years, is the disability community.
Ask anybody with a mobility or dexterity impairment how useful it is to be able to lock a door, turn on the lights or heating in their home using only their voice and the last word they would ever use to describe it is trivial.
Though Talking Books and Amazon Alexa set off in entirely opposite directions at inception, it is wonderful to see them now meet in the middle and provide an entertainment medium that is sure to be enjoyed by all types of audiences.
As for venture capitalist investors who dismiss assistive technologies as merely applying to a relatively small, niche addressable market, one need only recall the history of Talking Books to appreciate that sometimes, with innovation — it’s really about a lot more than meets the eye.
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You can Find it Here: Major Blind Charity Brings Its Full Talking Books Library To Amazon Alexa
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