Accessible Appliances: GE, FirstBuild, and an Inventive Young Man

Jack DuPlessis working at a computer. In the foreground are a washer and dryer.
Jack DuPlessis. Photo courtesy of Boris Ladwig

by Larry Skutchan

If you are blind, purchasing the wrong major appliance can rob your independence.

Previous generations of appliances worked well for blind and low vision users, because the controls were all analog, and if they did not already include a tactile pointer, some homemade markings could usually work. The indicator always pointed to a known position whether or not the machine was on.

Many of today’s appliances’ controls are digital, and they provide no feedback about what is selected. Putting your own mark on a dial that has no start or no end and does not point to the same thing is useless. In other words, the circular dials on most washers and dryers today spins freely, and it spins if the machine is on or off. If you spun the dial while it was off, then the pointer indicates a different function than it did when you marked it. This is the kind of dial that often includes nice sounds and even detents to indicate moving from one selection to the next, yet there is no way to tell what is selected without vision. A simple alternate tone on one position of such interfaces is enough to make the appliance useable, because once you know where one setting it, you can make notes or remember the number of selections to dial in for a particular task, but if that functionality is not built-in, there is no way to modify it later. This alternate sound technique is a trick many use with similar dials on audio equipment, except in that case, you can connect a playing device to deduce other selections from the one playing the known source. Unfortunately, you cannot use this trick on a washer or dryer, because there is no immediate indication of the setting. On a dishwasher I have, for instance, the start button has two modes, and I can tell by the sounds it makes when I close the door to determine its next action. If it is the wrong one, I can stop it, push the button again, and hopefully confirm the correct cycle is selected by the sound of water verses a solenoid.

Sometimes, you can turn off or unplug the machine and get the dials back to a known position, but even this does not work on some models that contain small backup provisions for power flickers or power loss. In my house, there is a rule that if you use the washer or dryer, you put it back on the setting you found it. Depending on another person’s behavior is never a recipe for success, though, and it is simply not practical to ask a house full of different people to change their behavior. Besides, it does not address the problem of accidentally brushing against the dial and spinning it to some unknown setting.

You can tell if the appliance you are considering uses this kind of control by noting there is no indication on the part of the dial that moves. Previous generations of appliance controls included a visual and sometimes even a tactile indicator that pointed to the function which was printed on the back plate of the knob.

A trip to the store to purchase a new appliance is frustrating, because it is hard to tell if the model under consideration works for you.

It would be helpful if there were some way to know for sure. Some web searches yield some information about using appliances without vision.

Some of the consumer blindness organizations nicely outline the problems and provide some great advice for identifying characteristics, but keeping such information current is a difficult task.

The American Foundation for the Blind provides some information about selecting home appliances in a series of articles: http://www.afb.org/info/living-with-vision-loss/using-technology/selecting-home-appliances/123

Brad Hodges wrote some great articles explaining some of the issues in The Braille Monitor:

It is still possible to purchase an analog controlled machine today, and some electronic controls mimic analog controls to some accessibility success. You can usually tell these machines by noting that the knob has a start and stop position. This is a good indication that you can ask to plug in the prospect and try it yourself, and you must do that to ensure you can use it.

Many new appliance designs are moving to using touch screens. The current generation of touch appliances have absolutely no alternate techniques for making them work without good vision, and accessibility considerations are nearly nonexistent at the time of this writing. See this CNET article on some of the current choices: https://www.cnet.com/news/control-these-large-smart-appliances-with-your-iphone/

Some high-end major appliances include an app to help operate the device, but without trying it out for accessibility and utility, there is no way to know you if get to maintain your independence in the laundry room or kitchen. In fact, without some research, you do not even know if the app really controls the device or just gives you notifications or warnings if something went wrong. Honestly, getting an alert on your smartphone about the temperature in the refrigerator is handy, but it is not the kind of thing that helps operate the refrigerator. You must look up the manufacturer’s information to see if the app lets you control things like the temperature before that app helps any. True, controlling the temperature is nice, but infrequent or one-time adjustments, like changing the temperature of the cooler, does not rob your independence like an inaccessible control on a stove or washer that you must use nearly every day.

It is clear that analog is on its way out, and ensuring access to electronic controls is crucial.

GE and FirstBuild are taking steps to change some of the confusion and uncertainty about using major appliances. FirstBuild is an online and physical community dedicated to makers, designers, and engineers to co-create the next generation of home appliances. Their innovative new approach to product design and community feedback and participation led to discussions between APH and GE Appliances engineers, designers, and administrators in an effort to help APH understand manufacturing techniques used for GE Appliance small runs.

Discussions about accessibility led one of the engineers Sam DuPlessis, to realize that the diagnostic port of newer GE small appliances could provide some solutions, and he tasked is 14-year-old son, Jack, with the project to create a talking module. Within a week, Jack created a working prototype.

The box communicates with the appliance and announces the setting you selected on the appliance’s dial. It also includes buttons, one each for the washer and dryer, that announce the status such as remaining time in the cycle.

They use Raspberry Pi and a control board from GE called the Green Bean. See http://market.firstbuild.com/products/greenbean

The software is at https://github.com/GEMakers/green-bean

On the washers and dryers, the port is in the back of the machine at the top right side as you are reaching around from the front. It is an RJ 45 jack connector.

Once connected, the speech box announces the settings on the dial and buttons of the appliance as you change them and provides buttons on the box to determine remaining cycle times for each.

One of the ways micro factories work is evolving the product through feedback and iteration cycles.

Other Considerations

Determining selections and the ability to control major appliances are only two obstacles.

Most new stove tops’ cooking surface is flat with no tactile indication of the location and size of the heating area. GE’s high end five burner induction stove solves the problem of accidentally touching the heat source ingeniously by using magnetism to produce directed energy only to the pan, but it is still difficult to determine exactly where the cooking surface for each burner is located and what the radius of it is. FirstBuild created a template that fits on the Monogram® stovetop with cutouts exactly the size and spacing for each burner. They have also been studying materials for use of this kind of template for the more traditional flat top cooking surfaces, too. Those types of burners do get hot, but they are much less expensive than the induction technology, thus they are in much more widespread use. Many blind cooks use these stoves effectively, but for children, new learners, and cooks losing their vision, templates outlining the exact positioning and size of the burner area on a flattop stove is critical.

One of the more challenging aspects of Universal Design Concept (UDC) interfaces for this induction Monogram® stove was the touch screen burner controls. Arranged in an arc to help indicate the position of the burner to which the control applied, it is impossible to control the level effectively without sight, even with the well placed tactile guide dots. The interface worked by sliding your finger to adjust the level, and a light bar followed to show the selected level.

Such interfaces could be more effective with gestures and audio feedback about the level setting, or the accessible box could include some physical knobs that would apply to each burner as selected.

Controlling appliances with the Amazon Echo is an interesting idea, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind when designing a cloud based interface to something as potentially dangerous as a cooktop burner, so currently, the voice command and response capabilities are restricted to those appliances that either do not include potentially dangerous components or only controlling them when the device can verify the user is in the same vicinity as the appliance and not taking commands from just anywhere. The recent havoc inflicted on the internet with the internet of things exploit emphasizes the concerns and possibilities.

GE’s stove hoods connect to Echo and a control to recognize hand gestures in the air to turn on and off the lights and fan, making it an enabler for people with mobility impairments that may not be able to reach the buttons on the hood itself.

Microwave ovens are not currently equipped with the port that enables the accessibility box to announce settings, but this is a possibility for commodity appliances in the future. Many smaller appliances can already connect via Bluetooth to an app running on the user’s phone, and if that app is designed with universal design concepts, you can control those kinds of appliances quite effectively. Practically speaking, though, it is not reasonable to run an app every time you want to heat your tea. The reason those controls are on the appliance in the first place it to make them convenient to use, and designers are migrating to creating experiences for everyone through constant innovation and refinement.

When a designer begins a new product, he follows a series of standardized steps. Unfortunately, those guidelines currently do not include consideration for using the appliance in less than optimal conditions. With the addition of simple principals, like a known starting place indication, most appliances would be usable at absolutely no additional cost to the manufacturer. The simple step of making one tone on the dial distinct instantly gives access. How do we add this crucial nugget of information to the design standards? GE knows about this now, and their future appliances will provide this indication. How do we communicate this to the rest of the manufacturers?

GE and FirstBuild realize that tomorrow’s appliances are not just about meeting a standard, like ADA, they are about innovating in ways way beyond ADA that meet the needs of the individual user.
For more information on the accessibility box or to leave comments, see the project’s blog at https://firstbuild.com/blog/talking-washer-dryer/.

To purchase one, see https://firstbuild.com/products/talking-laundry-module/

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