Will your toaster become WCAG compliant?

The consumer technology landscape changes quickly. Ten years ago, if we were talking about being online, we were generally talking about computers running a desktop operating system such as Windows. Five years ago, our thinking expanded to mobile devices thanks to products such as the Apple iPhone that were making the web become truly portable. Now we add the wearable category to our list with the Apple Watch and Android Wear products battling for our hearts, minds and relevance as people figure out exactly why they need them, and that leads us to the likely next big thing that’s just starting to become affordable – and perhaps accessible – the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT is not as new as you might think

The concept of connecting devices around the house to the internet is not really a new idea. I remember watching TV advertisements fifteen years ago about the LG Internet-ready refrigerator which conceptually seemed like a great idea – who wouldn’t want a fridge that could detect when you’d run out of a product and automatically order it from your local supermarket? There were, however, a few major problems with the concept at the time. Firstly, in most parts of the world the main connection method online was dial-up so the speedy LAN connection wasn’t as useful as it would seem, the web interface was clunky at best and the biggest problem of all was that even if you managed to configure the fridge correctly, there weren’t a lot of connected shops ready to restock your ice cream.

Fast forward to now, and while online fridges still aren’t particularly common, the concept doesn’t seem as unrealistic as it once did. Fast-forward twenty years into the future, and the idea that we might have 100 IP addresses being used by our various devices such as microwaves, washing machines, ceiling fans and even toasters seems quite realistic. At the last Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas we saw many smart appliances vying for consumer interest. Examples include connected lighting, cooking appliances and a washing machine that can update you electronically as it works its way through the different washing cycles.

IoT looks cool, why don't I have it yet?

If your response to having your washing machine regularly sending you text messages is ‘Why?’, you’re not alone. While it’s all good fun from a technical standpoint and exciting to tech-savvy pioneers in the area, the general public hasn’t really embraced IoT to date. As highlighted in CNET’s Top 5 video list of Appliances for the Super-rich, the US$8,500 smart grill and the US$10,000 connected oven look like fantastic toys with their ability to interact with recipes online and cook your food for you, but not something I’ll be buying any time soon on my family budget.

That said, not all IoT has to be expensive. Microsoft has invested heavily in creating a Windows 10 core for IoT devices including the US$35 Raspberry Pi 2, so cost doesn’t always have to be a factor. However, after you’ve put the Windows 10 installation on it – which I need to stress isn’t anything like running Windows 10 on a desktop – the first question you’re likely to ask is ‘Okay, now what do I do?’  Personally I love the Raspberry Pi 2, running OpenELEC on mine as a fantastic media centre, and it’s important to recognise that the Pi is a remarkably capable quad-core computer so to put it in the IoT category is probably a little insulting. It does illustrate the point though that a fair bit of technical expertise is required to do anything meaningful with such devices, putting a lot of the benefits of IoT out of the reach of most consumers.

The tremendous access potential

While you may not be thinking of connecting your toaster to your wi-fi any time soon, I can’t overstate how important that IoT could be to people with disabilities. To take the connected washing machine as an example, imagine how useful that would be if you use a wheelchair and can’t normally get to the recessed buttons located on the top of such an appliance, but now it doesn’t matter because you can run the whole thing in an app. Imagine how beneficial the smart oven would be if you are blind and unable to read a recipe book – it doesn’t matter because the oven will just get the recipe off the web for you. Taking it one step further, imagine if you can just throw ingredients into a box and, using image detection software not-so-dissimilar to what Google use now, your device figures out what the ingredients are, all the things you can cook with them and provides five options it wants to cook for your dinner. 

If we are to reach a time where devices connecting online are as common as the need for power sockets, then people with disabilities will be able to control lighting, heating, entertainment and key appliances through an accessible device of their choice. As a person with a disability, that’s a very exciting proposition, and in some of these categories it’s possible right now.

Is IoT accessible? Perhaps W3C WAI can help

While we have the technology to make it happen, the biggest challenge right now is our ability to drive it all. While cost is a factor, there are lots of affordable IoT devices around. The main issue really comes down to technical complexity and the need for consistency across different solutions from different manufacturers. While the applicability of WCAG 2.0 would need a high degree of interpretation to apply to a light bulb, web accessibility standards certainly apply to the browsers and apps that we use to centrally control it all. As this space continues to evolve, it’s vital that developers ensure that whatever devices control these products, accessibility is at the heart of them.

Outside of WCAG, there are also other W3C WAI standards and processes that can apply to IoT. The main one is the Independent User Interface (IndieUI), a way for user actions to be communicated to web applications. IndieUI will make it easier for web applications to work in a wide range of contexts — different devices, different assistive technologies (AT) and different user needs. The idea of Indie UI is that regardless of who manufactures a device, there is a consistent way of interacting with it using a standardised command set, so that whether it’s a swipe, keyboard shortcut, mouse pointer or wall switch, there are certain commands that will work consistently with the interface. While Indie UI initially focused more on getting consistent interaction with mobile devices, IoT poses a new opportunity for ensuring that our oven, dishwasher and toaster operate in a consistent fashion however we engage with them. If the affordability of IoT improves, which I’m sure it will in time, and using these devices becomes more simple and intuitive through WAI initiatives such as Indie UI, people with disabilities are likely to have real and profound benefits as we continue to become more connected.

So, while an IoT toaster featuring a web interface isn’t commonplace yet, the access benefits and implications need to be considered now. Indie UI offers a great opportunity for different manufacturers to work on consistent interfaces so our connected e-devices just work, and developers should adopt WCAG in their web and app development work to control it all. I’m particularly looking forward to owning a connected oven one day – not so much because of my disability, but because I’m a terrible cook!