Blindness charity launches new voice-based service for smart speakers

Innovative platform will give users access to information and support services

The National Council for the Blind of Ireland has launched a voice-based platform for Google and Amazon smart speakers that provides information on sight loss, and access to support and technology services.

The myNCBI Smart Hub Skill on Alexa and Google Home uses the voice-based platform to provide a full suite of features that can be accessed with simple commands once the skill has been enabled and launched on the device. It can be found in the Amazon Skill section of the Amazon app or the Google Action section of the Google App, and full access is available for free when a myNCBI account is linked to it.

“This is the first time an innovative voice-based platform of scale such as this has been developed in the charity sector,” said Kyran O’Mahoney, chief technology officer at NCBI. “There are many barriers for people with disabilities and we wanted to remove some financial and location restrictions to our services and supports. From research, we knew that most of our service users have either an Alexa-enabled or Google device in their home already so we opted to design and build the myNCBI Smart Hub to allow us to assist them directly on these platforms, whilst also creating a ‘path of least resistance’ to technology for the older generation who are predominately new to sight loss.”

“The use of disruptive technology enables us to expand and further reach and help people who are blind or live with visual impairments. The launch of myNCBI Smart Hub will have profound impacts to support people with disabilities world-wide.”

White label

Although it has been developed for NCBI, the concept is white labelled so it can be adopted by multiple charities.

Users can get information on NCBI support services, sight-loss conditions, NCBI Labs technology services and advocacy, as well as access to the NCBI podcast and library. It also allows users to request a referral or a call back from an NCBI staff member.

The launch coincides with Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and NCBI is giving away 500 Echo Dot devices to service users and their families.

NCBI is seeking to provide new ways to access its services following the pandemic lockdowns, when many people were isolated and unable to access support services in person. There are about 55,000 people who are blind or visually impaired in Ireland, and that number is expected to rise as the population ages. NCBI says some people who need their services are often isolated and may not have access or the mobility skills to avail of assessments, training, referrals and detailed medical information on sight loss and its conditions.

“We’re delighted that customers in Ireland can now access myNCBI through Alexa,” said Dennis Stansbury, Alexa UK country manager. “The myNCBI skill is another great way that Alexa is helping our blind or vision impaired customers feel more independent and connected by simply using voice commands.”

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist