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The artificial reader for the elderly

Last update: september 2023.

Thanks to AI technologies built into smart speakers, the visually impaired elderly are now able to access a media library of 70,000 audio books without having to manipulate a keyboard or screen, and without having to request a CD from their association for the blind and visually impaired. This service will change access to reading for many people, including dyslexic people.It is now available both in France and Canada, thanks to our partnership with Association Valentin Haüy (AVH, with its Éole library, France) and Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA, Canada).

The project has been much more complex than anticipated. By the end of 2021, we had a well-advanced test version on the Google platform, and the Valentin Haüy association’s development team had made good progress on the application interface for accessing the audio books. By early 2022, we were beginning to develop an equivalent solution for CELA  in Canada, in both English and French. The platform’s voice design was improved, step by step, with a few CELA testers, so that by early June 2022, we were able to give a full demonstration (in English) at the Digital Publishing Summit 2022.

So, we were almost ready to open the platform with AVH and CELA. But by the end of June 2022, Google suddenly announced that it was abandoning the Actions technology on which our development was based, without offering any alternative. “Patatras”; a huge disappointment for the teams.

Fortunately, at the beginning of 2022, we had started thinking about porting the solution to the Amazon Alexa platform, to satisfy people with this device. From then on, the team focused on creating an Alexa skill. This work took time, and many evolutions were made thanks to our team’s interactions with the CELA and AVH teams, as well as Amazon’s Alexa team, which is very interested in the use of the assistant by elderly and/or disabled people.

In Canada, the CELA skill has been on trial with 150 users for several months now. Our friends at CELA talked about it at the Digital Publishing Summit 2023. In France, the service is open as “early access” right now. For this launch, AVH has taken advantage of the new literary season, offering most of September 2023 new titles in human-voice. In November 2023, qualitative user tests will be carried out to further improve the user experience.

Right now, if you have an Alexa speaker and a CELA account in Canada, or an Éole account in France, you can simply say “Alexa, ouvre Valentin Lecture” or “Alexa, open Accessible Reading Canada”. You’ll need to follow the instructions for associating your association account with Alexa. You’ll need to know how to manipulate the Alexa application on a smartphone (a smartphone-savvy relative may be helpful). Then you’ll have immediate access to a huge library of audio books at the sound of your voice. The voice assistant’s online help will then allow you to navigate with ease.

A note in passing: Alexa doesn’t support faster playback speeds; we’ve asked our partners at Amazon to seriously consider adding this important feature.

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