‘Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual!’ heads to Oculus Quest this summer
SteamVR, Viveport and PSVR releases will follow in 2021 and 2022.
Every car is the result of a long development process in which automakers build many pre-production vehicles that never see the light of day. Rather than scrapping one of its Ioniq 5 test vehicles entirely, Hyundai repurposed the car's parts to make an air purifier.
According to a YouTube video description, the model "went through numerous tests to ensure our safety." The video notes that, over the course of a year, the vehicle was used to test the likes of the Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System, pass-by noise regulation and wind tunnel noise.
The video shows Hyundai engineers stripping the Ioniq 5 to its bones, then designing a completely different product using the components. Among other parts, they used the cooling fan, door panels, LED tail lamp, infotainment unit and, of course, the filter unit. The engineers put a 20-inch alloy wheel on the top of the case (so the purifier is probably pretty large), while the car's emblem adds some professional branding.
Although many car parts are already recyclable, including batteries, this is a neat experiment. It suggests there are other sustainable ways to repurpose a car that's otherwise outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, Hyundai started deliveries of the Ioniq 5 in the US this month.
Starting in March, Netflix will have to stream 20 state television channels in Russia. Roskomnadzor, the country's media watchdog, registered the platform as an "audiovisual service" this week. Among the channels Netflix will have to carry are the flagship Channel One, entertainment network NTV and a Russian Orthodox Church channel called Spas (which means "Saved").
Streaming services with more than 100,000 daily users in Russia are included on the register, which was established late last year. Not only must registered platforms offer state TV channels, they need to set up a Russian company, according to The Moscow Times.
Companies on the register also have to abide by Russian laws. For one thing, Netflix will not be allowed to promote "extremism." Critics claim that provision has been wielded against those who support the Kremlin's opponents.
Other video services in the country reportedly argued that Netflix should be added to the register to level the playing field, since it meets the requirements. The Russian version of Netflix is operated by Entertainment Online Service, a subsidiary of National Media Group, which has a stake in Channel One.
Engadget has contacted Netflix for comment.
In November, it emerged Russia was investigating a complaint over LGBTQIA+ content on Netflix. The company told Engadget such content was rated appropriately. That same month, Russia ordered several tech giants (including Apple, Google, Meta, TikTok and Twitter) to set up offices within its borders by the end of this year.
In spite of all the advancements we’ve seen in tech, the industry as a whole has consistently neglected people with disabilities. There have been some , including video call apps like FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and more adding better support for sign language interpreters and closed captioning. And, this year, and finally added stickers that enable automated captioning for speech in videos, too. But major organizations continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities. The organizer of E3 2021, for example, during its live streamed show.
There are too many individual transgressions and improvements to exhaustively detail here. Due to their sheer size, though, tech’s largest companies wield the greatest influence over what the rest of the industry does. By holding them accountable, we have a better chance of seeing widespread change in the way tech thinks about inclusive design. Here’s how Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook) and more did to improve the accessibility of their products and services in 2021.
Apple has led the way in inclusive design for years, and in 2021 the company continued to launch new features that made its products easier for those with disabilities to use. In addition to updating its screen reader, VoiceOver, to enable better descriptions of images for the visually impaired, Apple also launched several new products. In May, it rolled out a service called , which allowed customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service representatives (via their browsers at least). The feature is available in the US, UK and France and supports American, British or French sign languages in their respective countries.
Apple also introduced Assistive Touch for the Watch this year, allowing for touch-free interaction with its wearable. The idea is that users can clench their fists or pinch their fingers together to navigate the smartwatch. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning, and it still may not be feasible for those who don’t have the dexterity or strength to clench their fists to trigger the “double clench” action. But it’s a start, and one that few other smartwatches offer.
For those with very limited range of motion, this year also saw the launch of the by Tobii Dynavox. Called the TD Pilot, it’s a case for iPads as large as the 12.9-inch Pro model and comes with Tobii’s powerful eye-tracking sensor, large speakers, additional batteries and a wheelchair mount. Together with iPadOS 15, this will allow those with cerebral palsy, for example, to interact not only with the tablet, but also communicate with others more easily. A window on the other side of the case can display words to show what the user is saying.
Apple also added improvements for hearing aid users with iPhones this year, allowing for bi-directional communication. This means that those who connect compatible hearing aids to their iPhones no longer have to use their handset’s mic to be heard by their callers — the hearing aid can pick up the speaker’s voice, too. So far, Starkey and ReSound have released compatible “made for iPhone” devices.
On macOS, Apple also made it possible to customize the outline and fill color of the cursor so those with visual impairments can more easily tell when the mouse moves or changes shape. The company also expanded its keyboard shortcuts to allow users to control everything on a Mac with a keyboard (no need for a mouse or trackpad).
Finally, Apple added tools for developers using SwiftUI to make their apps more accessible. With this simplified workflow, there are now fewer obstacles in the way when trying to make more inclusive products.
Unfortunately, when Apple released iOS 15, it removed some features from Siri that were “used by many individuals for accessibility purposes,” according to Clark Rachfal. He’s the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind. Rachfal told Engadget that users “could no longer access their calling history, voicemails, emails and messages through Siri” when the OS was updated. The council and its members alerted Apple of these issues, he said, adding that the company said it’s working on “restoring this functionality to Siri.”
Google continued to add tools for people with disabilities in 2021. One highlight was the launch of Project Relate, an Android app that would generate custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Then, the app can transcribe, display and read out what the user said. Project Relate is currently in beta, with Google inviting those with atypical speech to sign up as testers.
The company did plenty to improve its existing products, too. In , it revamped its Talkback screen reader to offer new gestures and voice commands. In March, it that the Chrome browser could transcribe audio from the web for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. That transcription would be performed on-device, meaning you could get your captions without worrying about connecting to the cloud.
In addition to improving its existing products, Google also explored accessible experiences that could produce learnings for the industry at large. It teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Guardian on , which it describes as an experiment in storytelling that “adapts to suit the reader.” It’s a fully customizable experience that Google said will “offer those with visual disabilities an experience that is as comfortable, rich and creative as any other reader.”
According to the company, Auditorial “is intended to pose a question about how much more accessible the world’s information could be, if you could simply tailor every website to suit your personal sensory needs and preferences.” The hope is that this triggers a discussion on how the web could become more inclusive instead of “a one-size-fits-all approach.” Google published its findings in an “Auditorial Accessibility Notebook,” in order to help other publishers learn tips on how to “open up online storytelling to millions of blind and low vision users.”
Google also launched a browser-based game this year called SignTown, which uses your camera to teach you sign language and assess your progress. The game is just “one component of a broader effort to push the boundaries of technology for sign language and Deaf culture.” The company said it’s also exploring building “a more comprehensive dictionary across more sign and written languages, as well as collaborating with the Google Search team on surfacing these results to improve search quality for sign languages.”
In 2021, Microsoft surprised us by releasing , which it the “most inclusively designed version of Windows yet.” The new OS brings nicer-looking dark and high contrast themes, plus updated sounds that are more soothing and can be heard by more users. The company also renamed its “Ease of Access” section to “Accessibility” to make assistive tools easier to find. Windows Voice Typing also makes it easier to dictate your messages.
Prior to launching Windows 11, though, Microsoft a five-year commitment to “help bridge the ‘Disability Divide’.” It focuses on hiring and educating people with disabilities, as well as building more accessible products. That includes using AI in Word to detect and convert heading styles for blind and low-vision readers, a for screen readers and expanding Immersive Reader to better convey what’s on PowerPoint slides and notes. It added a new accessibility checker that works in the background and prompts users to fix issues across Microsoft Office and .
The company not only expanded live captioning and transcription capabilities in Teams, but also rolled out support for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) captions, as well as the ability to pin and spotlight multiple presenters. Auto-captioning is also available for LinkedIn Live broadcasts.
To make its hardware easier to use, the company launched a new Surface Adaptive Kit . The bundle includes tags, labels, keycaps and more to make PC parts and important buttons more identifiable. Like Apple, Microsoft also added sign language support (specifically ASL) to its Stores to assist deaf shoppers. Unlike Apple, however, Microsoft doesn’t appear to offer this for after-sales support yet.
Microsoft is one of few companies in tech that’s transparent about its efforts to improve training and hiring processes for people with disabilities. It made investments via its Urban Airband initiative “to provide affordable broadband, hardware and software to people with disabilities starting in Los Angeles and New York.” Following a pilot at the University of Illinois, Microsoft said it’s expanding to additional tertiary education institutes to “increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in STEM education.” It’s also working to “create best-in-class Universal Design Learning (UDL) environments in STEM education.”
To connect people with disabilities to employers, Microsoft announced that it’s adding new accessibility resources and features to LinkedIn, including a LinkedIn Learning course focusing on “accessibility in the modern workplace.” There were also LinkedIn Coaches events specifically aiming to help job seekers with disabilities find employment opportunities. The company also partnered with , an app that connects blind and low vision users with sighted volunteers, to make LinkedIn staff available for visual assistance on video calls.
Microsoft also launched an to make assistive technology reachable to those who can’t afford it. Considering how expensive assistive technology currently is, this is a promising step towards getting people the gear they need. Though it’s still limited in its reach, the Fund is at least an acknowledgement of the high price that people with disabilities continue to have to pay to be part of the world able-bodied people take for granted.
Amazon’s accessibility efforts aren’t just aimed at people with disabilities. The company says it pays attention to aging individuals and helping them feel more confident living independently. This year, it introduced two programs as part of its Alexa Smart Properties service that enable administrators to offer voice-assisted experiences in places like senior living facilities and hospitals. The company also launched to keep caregivers and elderly individuals connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It would offer features like fall detection and remote assist to give loved ones peace of mind.
Amazon also updated the Alexa app to offer light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It rolled out a new option to give people more time to finish speaking before Alexa gives a response, which it said is designed to help people with certain speech impediments. The company also included cards with braille text in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, Amazon launched a dictionary audio feature to read out individual selected words and help those with learning disabilities or foreign language speakers better understand pronunciations.
This year, the company introduced a that follows you around your home and provides easy access to helpful info via its display. It works with Alexa Together to help caregivers look out for loved ones remotely and keeps an eye on your home while you’re away. The robot features similar accessibility features to the Echo Show smart displays and has been trained “to work for customers who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes.” It will also play specialized driving sounds to stop it becoming a tripping hazard.
Amazon also invests in several accessibility-minded projects through its Alexa Fund, including Labrador Systems, which makes home robots to help people with limited mobility live more independently. The company has also worked with neural interface startup Cognixion to for easier smart home device control. Amazon and Voiceitt also released this year to help users with atypical speech converse with Alexa and other people.
Though its Alexa-focused products have received many updates to improve accessibility, Amazon’s Prime content appears to have been neglected. According to Rachfal, though Prime TV offers audio descriptions on a large amount of content, many titles use text to speech with synthetic voices. Rachfal added that these “lack the quality of human narrated audio description and the overall quality of the content suffers, making it less enjoyable for blind and low vision consumers.”
To Rachfal, this is an example of something that’s done for people with disabilities “without input, feedback and collaboration with the disability community.”
Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower and its rebrand this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility-related updates. At the start of 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize over 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this represented a 10x increase since AAT’s debut in 2016. It also rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like positions of objects in a picture and their relative sizes.
Unfortunately, as it pushed out these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said that when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less-informative descriptions for users who are blind or have low-vision. Rachfal said this change “was done due to privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “Nor were they given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.
Facebook in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”
In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.
“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”
Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.
Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to on . As of December, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also apply on ZP’s website to get free Portals which will come with the ZP apps.
Facebook this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like and Podcasts on iOS and Android.
Let’s not forget the company’s renaming to Meta this year and its new focus on the metaverse. According to head of accessibility Mike Shebanek, “we're already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the breakthrough possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”
We’ll have to wait and see if and how that comes true, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to make sure that its expansion of the metaverse is inclusive from the start.
Twitter only set up its two accessibility teams last year, after an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded its deaf and hard of hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, though, the company has shown noteworthy improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, added captions and accessibility labels in Spaces and brought automatic video captions. That last one is “available globally in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS and the web.
A couple months ago we rolled out video caption file upload. Starting today, all videos will be auto-captioned.
To see them, turn on captioning in your mobile device settings, or select the CC button on Web.
What do you think of the experience? https://t.co/fywdjC6yDI
— Twitter Accessibility (@TwitterA11y) December 14, 2021
Though this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller portfolio of products. Still, it has managed to make significant changes. Rachfal praised Twitter as being “the first social media platform to conspicuously prompt users to include alt text with images,” though he did note that filling out the field is still optional.
Alt text and captioning continue to be tricky accessibility features for the industry. They’re labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can result in garbled, inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s virtual E3 gaming convention, where sometimes made the show incomprehensible for those who relied on subtitles to understand the announcements.
There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility-related upgrades. According to a February 2021 study by , for example, a whopping 97.4 percent of websites had mistakes that failed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form input labels and more.
It’s not just websites that need work: Other media formats also need to be more inclusively designed. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.
According to the NAD, because the three defendants “do not make transcripts or captions available for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans are denied full and equal enjoyment of the content they offer their hearing users.” Meanwhile, Spotify that it will start offering automatically generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music in November.
Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that healthcare is a continually problematic area for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “This is still an entire sector that we hear about far too often from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the mires of the third wave of COVID-19, it’s inexcusable to continue excluding people with disabilities when it comes to things like scheduling vaccination or testing appointments.
In November this year, the Justice Department it had reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registration portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have a hard time using a mouse.” The calendar on its website, for example, “did not show screen reader users any available appointment times,” while people relying on keyboard-based navigation instead of a mouse could not use the tab key to complete a consent form required to schedule an appointment.
The ACB also worked with CVS to offer accessible prescription information in all locations in the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read out prescription labels via the CVS Pharmacy app.
Though there have been many transgressions in the past year, we also saw many promising developments in ensuring technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Meanwhile, HBO Max launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content starting in March 2021 and committed to including the descriptions to all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its back catalog. Also, in collaboration with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness it will buy and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.
I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What’s most encouraging, though, is the increasing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said it’s “seeing more and more companies reach out to us in the beginning phases for input rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that’s “born out of the advocacy work of ACB and the Audio description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”
After several companies cancelled on-site plans entirely for CES next week, the organization that runs the show announced today that the event will close one day early. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) said CES 2022 will now run January 5th-7th "as an additional safety measure to the current health protocols that have been put in place." January 3rd and 4th are media-only days when press conferences and keynotes take place.
Protocols include masks and proof of vaccination to attend in-person events. The CTA also recently announced that it would provide Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 tests at badge pickup. The association has asked attendees to complete a rapid test 24 hours before entering a CES venue. If someone experiences symptoms while in a CES venue, the CTA has advised them to report to a first aid station for testing. The organization says it will also provide PCR tests for any attendees who are required to have one by their destination prior to departure from Las Vegas.
In the last week, high-profile exhibitors like Amazon, Google, Intel, Lenovo, Meta and more have cancelled in-person plans for CES 2022. As part of today's announcement, the CTA explained that over 2,200 companies will still show off their goods on the ground in Vegas, noting that it has added 143 more in the last two weeks.
CTA CEO Gary Shapiro has defended the decision to keep the show an in-person event as the omicron variant causes COVID-19 case numbers to surge in several parts of the world. “As the world’s most influential technology event, CES is steadfast in its pledge to be the gathering place to showcase products and discuss ideas that will ultimately make our lives better,” said Shapiro. “We are shortening the show to three days and have put in place comprehensive health measures for the safety of all attendees and participants.” Shapiro has pointed to the smaller companies that rely on the event as a potential springboard for products as a key reason for not cancelling the event. CES 2021 was entirely virtual.
"We will all be taking risks," he said in a recent op-ed for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "But without risk there is no innovation."
When the clock strikes midnight to ring in 2022 on the east coast, NBC Sports Network will shut down. will shift much of its sports coverage, including matches, over to the USA Network.
Assuming more games aren't suspended due to teams having too many COVID-19 cases, Premier League coverage will get off to a flying start on USA Network with on New Year's Day. Arsenal will square off against league leaders Manchester City at 7:30AM ET before Watford host Tottenham and Crystal Palace take on West Ham. Sunday brings a match between Everton and Brighton, before Chelsea host Liverpool in a clash between title contenders.
The shift to USA Network shouldn't change much for Peacock users, though. Overflow games and will remain on that platform, including three matches that are scheduled to stream on Peacock Premium on Sunday. Some of the bigger games will still air on the main NBC network, and NBCU will continue to broadcast every Premier League match across its multitude of platforms.
It's not clear as yet whether there are plans to broadcast overflow games on other NBCU networks. On the last day of the 2020-21 season, when all 10 matches kicked off at the same time, USA Network, CNBC and the Golf Channel each aired one game.
Twitch is introducing a new machine learning feature to help streamers protect their channels from people attempting to avoid bans. Dubbed "Suspicious User Detection," the tool will automatically flag individuals it suspects may be "likely" or "possible" ban dodgers.
In cases involving the former, Twitch will prevent any messages they send from showing up in chat. It will also identify those individuals for streamers and any mods helping them with their channel. At that point, they can decide if they want to ban that person. By default, possible repeat trolls can send messages in chat, but they too will be flagged by the system. Additionally, Twitch says creators have the option to prevent them from sending any messages in the first place.
"The tool is powered by a machine learning model that takes a number of signals into account — including, but not limited to, the user's behavior and account characteristics — and compares that data against accounts previously banned from a Creator's channel to assess the likelihood the account is evading a previous channel-level ban," a Twitch spokesperson told Engadget when we asked about the signals the system uses to detect potential offenders.
While Twitch plans to turn on Suspicious User Detection for everyone, the tool won't automatically ban users for streamers. That's by design because it's impossible to create a machine learning tool that is 100 percent accurate in every context. "You're the expert when it comes to your community, and you should make the final call on who can participate," the company said in a . "The tool will learn from the actions you take and the accuracy of its predictions should improve over time as a result."
The introduction of the tool follows a summer in which Twitch struggled to contain a phenomenon called "hate raids." The attacks saw malicious individuals use thousands of bots to spam channels with hateful language. In many cases, they targeted creators from marginalized communities. Hate raids became such a frequent feature of the platform that some creators walked away from Twitch for a day in company's.