Google is making Assistant’s voice features much easier to use for people with disabilities

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Google has partnered with leading accessibility firm Tobii Dynavox, best known for creating speech synthesis and eye-tracking devices, to integrate Google Assistant into the company’s Snap Core First line of dedicated tablets and mobile apps. That way, people who have trouble speaking can now use Assistant to control home appliances and other smart home products.

Tobii is perhaps more broadly known in the tech industry for its eye-tracking software for consumer electronics devices like laptops and VR headsets through a separate subsidiary known as Tobii Tech. However, many of those same innovations power Tobii Dynavox’s line of speech synthesis tablets and its companion software suite, both of which are widely used in the accessibility and assistive technology spaces.

Those touchscreen devices let owners customize a screen of icons that can produce words and vocal snippets, allowing people with developmental disabilities or motor function impairments to communicate either through touching the icons or by using only their eyes.

Because Google Assistant requires you to use your voice to access many of the platform’s features, it’s not easily accessible to people who are unable to issue vocal commands in the way the software has been designed to receive them. The new Tobii integration, however, will make it easy to control Google devices using one of Tobii’s speech synthesis machines, with custom button options to, for instance, control music playback on an Assistant speaker. The speech synthesis devices will issue the commands directly to the Google device, ensuring the smart speaker or display can carry out the request for turning on lights in a room or queueing up a playlist on Spotify.

“Our mission is to empower people with disabilities to do what they once did or never thought possible. It includes the possibility to communicate, control your surrounding environment and receive the same access to education and information as anyone else,” said Tobii Dynavox CEO Fredrik Ruben in a statement. “Therefore, we are extremely pleased to enter this partnership with Google and jointly develop technologies that are more accessible to everyone.”

Google is also integrating Tobii Dynavox’s library of tens of thousands of pictograms — the visual symbols that translate to a desired word, phrase, or action that can be programmed onto Tobii’s tablet line — into its existing Action Blocks platform. First introduced last year, Action Blocks lets you boil down a complex series of actions on an Android phone or tablet, like opening the phone app and dialing a contact in your favorites list, into a big button that can sit on the home screen where it’s more easily accessible.

“By including PCS symbols for the customizable buttons, the interface will become more familiar for the millions of students and adults using Tobii Dynavox’s PCS symbols to communicate,” Tobii Dynavox said in a statement.

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