As a professional reviewer, I’ve seen my fair share of tech product launches. But I can honestly say that Samsung’s First Look 2021 was the first time a launch presentation has brought a tear to my eye.
I am also a member of the disabled community, and in Samsung’s First Look event last week, I witnessed an encouraging example of big tech embracing all ability levels, and in a big way. Samsung’s new QLED and Neo QLED TVs boast extensive accessibility features that make using the remote, finding content, and fully experiencing what’s on the screen possible for more people. The initiative, called “Screens for All,” provides new settings that specifically benefit those with visual and auditory impairments. But as with wheelchair ramps, subtitles, and automatic steering, advancements that benefit the disabled community often benefit us all. (After all, everyone experiences disability of some sort eventually.)
So what are the accessibility features?
In a video released last week, Samsung outlined a number of features aimed specifically at people with low vision, the Blind, hard of hearing, and the Deaf. (Skip to 11:10 in the video for more on the topic.) And while it may not address everyone’s particular needs, it’s a promising start.
- Sign Language Avatar: An on-screen avatar can even guide you through the TV’s functions.
- Closed Caption and Position: Closed captions often run across the bottom of the screen, and that’s also where many programs tend to run text like tickers or weather updates. Two lines of text on top of each other make for very difficult reading, but closed caption positioning allows you to move the closed captions anywhere on the screen that makes the most sense for the current program. Closed captions can also be set to populate automatically.
- Sign Language Recognition: Sign language users will be able to interact with their TV using sign language, as others have been able to use voice control.
- Voice Guide: For those with low vision, Voice Guide identifies both the current channel and volume level.
- SeeColors: Far more advanced than a simple RGB adjustment, SeeColors runs a series of vision tests geared for colorblindness in order to ensure the colors on screen best align with what the watcher can see.
- High Contrast: With a re-engineered chipset, Samsung’s high contrast setting makes all menus easier to see without affecting the video itself.
- Learn Remote Control: A special program on Samsung’s newest TVs will enable low vision users to learn what the remote buttons do and where they are located. A press of the button and the TV announces what the button is.
- Learn Menu Screen: As with Learn Remote Control, Learn Menu Screen describes the layout of menus and what the different selections do.
- Grayscale: To sharpen the text and images, the entire screen can be converted to black and white.
- Color Inversion: Another way to increase visibility for some users is to invert the colors on the screen.
- Multi-Output Audio: Being hard of hearing no longer means the others in the house have to endure the TV blaring. Multi-Output Audio allows the sound to be directed to both your soundbar and a Bluetooth headset, for example, at different volume levels.
- Enlarge: As the name indicates, this feature magnifies text on the screen for easier reading.
- Audio Description: Standard closed-captioning isn’t enough. Audio Description goes as far as to describe scenes and hand gestures so the listener gets the whole picture.
- Sign Language Zoom: Sign language users will be glad to know that another great Accessibility feature is sign language zoom. This feature allows users to zoom the sign language frame of the window up to 200% larger for easier interpretation of signs and gestures.
- Remote Button Repeat: For those with limited motor function, press-and-hold features like lowering volume and scrolling through channels can move too fast. This option slows down the scroll to make stopping at the right spot easier.
The World Health Organization estimates that globally there are over 466 million people who experience “disabling hearing loss” and over 2.2 billion people who have some sort of vision impairment. As the world’s largest TV manufacturer, with about 20% market share, Samsung is uniquely positioned to have an effective impact on the disabled community.
Many of the features Samsung outlined were already available on earlier models, and some, like the ability to customize closed captions, are common to many brands. Some, however—specifically Automatic Closed Captioning, Sign Language Recognition, and Voice Guide—are more recent and were developed directly with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and persons with low vision and deafness.
“At Samsung, we seek to provide them with the same level of viewing experience as all of our consumers,” said JH Han, President of Visual Display Business at Samsung Electronics.
The First Look 2021 video includes some genuinely touching moments in which people with a variety of disabilities interact with the new features. The segment closes with Samsung engineer Byungho Kim, legally blind since 1995, who has been a force for inclusive design within the company on a variety of products including screen readers, an e-learning platform, washing machines, and mobile devices.
“My life changed after becoming blind,” said Kim said in 2018. “I began to think more about how I could help others like me. I thought about ways to develop lessons and volunteer programs and how to enable disabled people to use our products more easily. This drive has made me a better person.”
Slow but steady progress for accessibility
The new accessibility settings will be available on all 2021 QLED and Neo QLED models—premium models in the 2021 line-up that may prove to be out of reach for many customers.
Nevertheless, the bright spotlight that Samsung chose to put on accessibility during a global press event feels like a big step forward. And with major companies like Samsung and Microsoft normalizing accessible-first design, there is some hope that improved accessibility will become cheaper and more widely available in the next few years.
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