Talking set-top boxes

Graeme Turner
Your old television might soon not work anymore. Those with old televisions might need to add a set-top box. The new digital format is an improvement. It offers better quality pictures and sound. There are also new channels to watch. But digital television also presents barriers to some people with a disability. Digital television uses on-screen menus and electronic program guides. The menus rely on people having sight. A trial scheme has tested talking set-top boxes to solve the program. The talking set-top boxes can read out information on the screen.
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Graeme Turner on 28/09/2011
An old television set from the 1960s with a wooden cabinet

Your old television might soon not work anymore without a set-top box.

Analog television signals were recently switched off in regional Victoria. Melbourne televisions will also have to move to digital in 2013. There are many benefits of digital television. Sound and picture quality is improved. There are also a host of extra channels. But digital television also presents barriers to people who are blind or vision impaired. It uses on-screen menus and an electronic program guide. These menus rely on a person having sight to operate them independently.

A talking set-top box can ensure people who have low vision are not left behind in the digital television switchover. A talking set-top box will not only allow the digital signal to be displayed on your old television. It will also speak out any text on the screen. The units can be plugged in to an old analog or a new digital television.

With a remote control you can switch on the talking mode at any time. It will tell you what channel you are on. It can also tell you the current program and its start and finish times. Another button push can give you the next show coming up and how many minutes you have to wait before it starts. The device can read out the full program guide for the week. You can also set reminders to prompt you of favourite shows.

Trial scheme

The talking set-top boxes have been manufactured by two companies. They were awarded tenders last year to develop the devices. This year the government has trialled the use of the talking set-top boxes as part of the Household Assistance Scheme.

The government has shown real leadership on this issue and they recognised that there were no off-the-shelf blind friendly digital televisions or set-top boxes, says Vision Australia's Michael Simpson. Mr Simpson is Vision Australia's national policy and advocacy manager. This is the first time anywhere in the world where government has rolled out a scheme to support vulnerable households to switch-over to digital TV where talking set-top boxes have been offered as part of the switch-over.

Audio description

The talking set-top boxes also offer access to audio description. This service features a recorded narrator who describes what is taking place visually on the screen. The ABC is considering trialling an audio description service later this year. The set-top boxes will allow users to listen to the audio description through headphones so other members of the family do not hear it.

Blind Citizens Australia says the talking devices and audio description are very important for people with a disability. Information access is core to a person's sense of well-being, says national executive officer Robyn Gale.

The set-top box units are now available outside the Household Assistance Scheme. They are  available at general electronic stores and Vision Australia (opens new window).

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