PHILADELPHIA — Comcast Corp. this week expanded its efforts to make it easier for people with disabilities to watch its television programming. It launched new technology that allows people with physical disabilities that impede hand control and voice, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), to control their television with eye movement.

The company is linking its web-based remote with consumers’ own eye-gaze or sip-and-puff assistive technology. Customers will be able to change the channel, and record and search for shows with their eyes. There’s also the potential to use it for Comcast products that can control home temperature, lighting and security.

Eye-gaze control is free, but customers must have their own equipment. Typically insurers provide that technology only to people who are not able to use their hands or voices. It can cost up to $15,000, although it is possible to create a system for $5,000 to $6,000, said Alisa Brownlee, a clinical manager with the ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

When she has asked people with ALS what is most important to them, television tops the list. Many are stuck in front of televisions all day, and it can be frustrating to be unable to change the channel. “We have a number of people in nursing homes that desperately want to use a remote,” she said.

Comcast’s new program, she said, “is a small thing, but it opens up so much independence for people.”

Gina Cooke, an occupational therapist at Magee Rehab who works with assistive devices, said only a few of her patients would use the new interface because they can use their voices. People who are paralyzed are often frustrated that they can’t use Comcast’s voice-activated remote because you have to be able to press a button on the remote and talk at the same time. She said the new program might be helpful for people who need to use breathing machines that make it impossible to talk.

Eve Hyppolite, a showcase delivery engineer, demonstrated eye-gaze control last week at a Comcast office in Philadelphia. A small bar beneath her computer had been calibrated to her eye movements, on which she focused for a few seconds on a mouse icon, then switched to the button she wanted to activate. The system can do anything most people can do with their hands, like choosing a list of action movies or the channels they watch most often.

She made it look easy. A reporter found it easy to focus on the mouse, but not so easy to move to other buttons. Still, the new system is for people who are skilled users of eye-gaze technology. Hyppolite said it took her about an hour to feel comfortable with the technology. Brownlee said people with ALS typically understand the systems within two to five visits with a trainer.

Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility at Comcast, said the potential market for the eye-gaze remote is likely small. The ALS Association estimates that about 16,000 Americans have the progressive disease at any given time. “We’re not doing this for a market,” he said. “We’re doing this because we’re committed to customer service.”

Wlodkowski, who is blind, is charged overall with expanding service to millions of people with disabilities.

Comcast announced the new technology this week, but a handful of people have been testing it since January.

One early user is Jimmy Curran, 30, a Philadelphia resident with spinal muscular atrophy who is the focus of a video Comcast made about the new product.

A market research analyst for Independence Blue Cross, Curran can type on a computer and talk, although his imperfect enunciation would likely confuse voice-activated devices. He can use a phone, but said he can’t keep both a phone and a remote in his lap. When a caregiver leaves, he is often stuck with a TV channel he’d rather not watch. He said Comcast supplied him with eye-gaze technology and he learned it easily. (Comcast did not say how much it paid for Curran’s system.)

Curran said the technology was easy to learn, and he’s enjoying his new power over the TV. “I think it’s great,” he said.

Customers can link to Xfinity X1 eye control at xfin.tv/access.

Comcast has yet to solve a problem that vexes many families: How to make it easier for older people to use remotes. The company ships about 800 large-button remotes made by a third party each month. It has been developing its own simpler, large-button remote, Wlodkowski said. The company thought it had one last year, but decided it wasn’t good enough. Maybe next year, he said.

© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC