How does a blind person find what to "watch" on a TV with 200 channels and 46,000 video-on-demand choices of movies, shows, and clips? Tom Wlodkowski, a blind executive at Comcast Corp., thinks he has the answer: a talking TV channel guide.
"The television is not strictly as visual a medium as you might think," said David Goldfield, a computer technology instructor at the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "Radio drama in the U.S. is more or less dead. If you are blind and you want a good story, you're still going to get it on television."
Comcast expects the talking guide to come with its next-generation X2 platform in 2014. The cable giant demonstrated the talking guide this year at a California technology conference and at the cable-TV-industry trade show in Washington.
Comcast also market-tested the guide with 20 average-Joe-type sight-impaired individuals in Philadelphia, arranged by the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The interactive, cloud-based guide - the current voice is a woman, but users eventually could choose the voice, as they can with a ring tone - responds to buttons the person pushes.
This is part of a year-old project at Comcast to make the company's products more accessible to customers with disabilities. Wlodkowski has an "accessibility" team and will soon have a lab in the Comcast Center.
Comcast isn't doing this just to reach out to the nation's 1.3 million blind individuals who fear being left behind as popular culture and media go digital on the Internet and TV.
The Twenty-First Century Communications and Accessibility Act of 2010, passed on the 20-year anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, is forcing technology companies to integrate accessibility functions into products. It's believed that, in three years, talking interfaces will have to come with TV products.
Wlodkowski thinks he also can drive business. People with disabilities account for $200 billion in discretionary spending power, and catering to their needs, he believes, can boost brand loyalty.
"We will meet the requirements of the law, but we also believe there can be innovation," he said.
Wlodkowski is looking to develop products that could help older Americans "age in place" through the Xfinity home products, which now include home security.
Generally, technology companies - with the exception of Apple Inc. - have received poor marks in the selling of blind-friendly products.
"We see it as a civil right, and we see manufacturers embracing accessibility way too slowly," Lauren McLarney, government affairs specialist at the National Federation of the Blind, said of consumer electronics and technology companies. Comcast's talking guide sounds "worthwhile," but she hasn't seen it.
The association offers a channel guide by zip code called "newsline" that last year was accessed 600,000 times.
Before the talking guide, Wlodkowski said, he would have to recognize Matt Lauer's voice at NBC or Anderson Cooper on CNN. He also memorized channel numbers. But most times, he had no idea what was on the channel.
"The only way I could navigate TV before," Wlodkowski said, "was to go up and down the channels and listen until I found something that I liked."
Recently, he was fiddling with a talking TV guide and stumbled on Brady Bunch reruns. "They still syndicate that? Wow," he said.
Formerly with AOL Inc., Wlodkowski is the vice president of accessibility and said his team at Comcast had four goals:
To seek information from disabled customers about what they need and how they interact with Comcast's products.
To integrate functionality into products so they can be more easily used by disabled subscribers.
To introduce specific products, such as the talking guide.
To enhance customer service for disabled subscribers.
Wlodkowski, who was born blind, was raised in Southington, Conn., with three older brothers. His parents insisted on a regular childhood. He rode a bike in the neighborhood, skied with a guide, and marched in the marching band (he beat the snare drum).
His most popular sitcom was Cheers because, he said, "it was relatively easy to follow. When Norm walked in, everybody said, 'Hi, Norm.' "
He attended Boston College, majoring in communications. His first media job was with WGBH, the public broadcasting station in Boston. While there, Wlodkowski developed, with a federal grant from the Department of Education, a prototype of a talking TV interface. It was never commercialized.
Wlodkowski said he was happy to be back in a city with mass transit and lives in an apartment at 17th and Arch Streets. His wife, Michele, and 15-year-old son, Colin, will relocate from Virginia, and he intends to buy a suburban home near a rail line.
One challenging experience in Philadelphia has been mastering the elevators at the sky-high Comcast Center. There are more than 30 elevators, and some go only to certain floors.
"Catching the elevator in this place," Wlodkowski said, "is an art that I don't think I have figured out."