From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Students Give Appliances a Voice

Making an every day activity like doing the laundry seem like less of a “chore” was the goal of a group of engineering students at Michigan State University who recently designed a device that will allow blind users to speak commands to their washer.

It was all part of an assignment for a class of senior-level electrical engineering students — make one of today’s high tech digital washing machines easily usable by people who can’t see. Stipulations on the project included making the device sturdy enough to weather a spin cycle and inexpensive enough that people could actually afford it. Whirlpool donated an unmodified digitally-controlled Duet washing machine to get the students started.

But for the students, the real motivation for the project was to develop an ergonomic appliance with modern features suited to the usability needs of a blind person. Michael and Karla Hudson, both blind and for whom the resulting washing machine was modified, noted that they had already been alerted to the difficulties of today’s washing machines. “My blind friends warned me about buying a new appliance, that it would be a nightmare because it’s getting harder to buy them with real knobs,” Michael Hudson said in a Michigan State University press release.

Stephen Blosser with Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, agreed. “One of the new trends in appliances is more buttons and lights, which is a seemingly insurmountable challenge to those who can’t see. If you can’t see the buttons, you just guess,” Blosser said.

Ultimately the engineering students met their challenges by creating a small voice operated device that could be fitted onto the Duet, with hardware that would cost about $30.00 per unit, if mass produced. They focused on simple voice commands to match the desires of the users, but maintained the physical appearance of the machine by incorporating the device into the existing control panel. All that is outwardly visible of the add-on voice-run technology are a few holes for a speaker, tiny Braille labels and a small volume knob.

While no plans have been made to market the device, course instructor Erik Goodman is already gearing up for next year’s project