A brother’s love conjures up a extra accessible Google Assistant


Brothers Lorenzo and Giovanni Caggioni ride a tandem bike.

Brothers Lorenzo and Giovanni Caggioni, out for a spin.


Voice-activated digital assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa make trivial duties like enjoying your favourite tune so simple as saying just a few phrases. However for folks like Giovanni Caggioni, who has Down syndrome and congenital cataracts, which makes him blind and unable to talk, these instruments are inaccessible with out a few of kind of augmented hack. 

Caggioni, 21, loves music and films. However he cannot use the household’s Google Dwelling machine or the Google Assistant on his Android telephone himself as a result of he cannot give the “OK Google” command to seek for his favourite leisure.

His older brother Lorenzo, a strategic cloud engineer at Google primarily based in Italy, got down to resolve this drawback. In an effort to provide his brother higher independence, Lorenzo and a few colleagues within the Milan Google workplace arrange Mission Diva to create a tool that might set off instructions to the Google Assistant with out utilizing his voice. It includes a button that plugs right into a telephone, laptop computer or pill utilizing a wired headphone jack that may then be related through Bluetooth to entry a Google Dwelling machine.

Lorenzo knew that with the correct expertise adaptation, he might make Google Dwelling a great tool for Giovanni.

“When he’s supported by individuals who consider in him,” Lorenzo stated in an interview with CNET, “and when he has the appropriate setup, the appropriate instruments, the appropriate atmosphere round him, he’s actually in a position to exceed any expectation.”

Mission Diva is considered one of three new tasks that Google highlighted ultimately week’s Google I/O convention, forward of International Accessibility Consciousness Day. The corporate has been engaged on accessibility points for a number of years to attempt to make sure its merchandise are extra accessible. As an example, the Google Maps workforce launched a program to make use of native guides who scout out locations with ramps and entrances for folks in wheelchairs. Final 12 months, on the I/O developer convention, Google introduced the Android Lookout app, which helps the visually impaired by giving spoken clues in regards to the objects, textual content and folks round them.

Google’s effort is a part of a broader pattern amongst large tech corporations to make their services and products extra accessible to folks with disabilities. Digital assistants, particularly, have been the main focus of a number of efforts already. Final 12 months, Amazon made the “Faucet Alexa” function obtainable for the Echo Present touchscreen sensible speaker to permit deaf customers to faucet on the display to entry customizable shortcuts to frequent Alexa methods, together with climate, information headlines and timers. It additionally provides Alexa Captioning, which permits customers to learn Alexa’s responses.

“The extra entry strategies, the higher,” stated Jennifer Edge-Savage, an assistive expertise advisor in Massachusetts. “There are many mainstream applied sciences that may make life a lot simpler for folks with disabilities. So one thing that is simply cool for me might be life-changing for the folks I work with day by day to assist them to be extra unbiased.” 

Adapting expertise

For Lorenzo, adapting Google Assistant for Giovanni was private. Lorenzo stated that Giovanni, the youngest of six siblings, was the brother who “accomplished our household.”

“He has all the time given a lot to our household, I needed to provide again one thing to him,” he stated. “I like expertise. In order that was one thing I might do for him.”

Lorenzo stated he was impressed by the strategy his mom took whereas elevating Giovanni. 

“My mother all the time made positive that Giovanni had entry to all the identical devices and expertise that everybody within the household and all his mates have been utilizing to hearken to music or to get pleasure from cartoons,” Lorenzo stated.

There have been a number of challenges to think about in designing a software for Giovanni to make use of. Giovanni is severely restricted in his communication. Not solely does he not converse, however he solely is aware of just a few primary indicators in signal language.

Due to limitations in wonderful motor expertise, he is additionally unable to govern a smartphone or pill. And attributable to his cognitive incapacity, Lorenzo stated that Giovanni is unable to navigate an advanced consumer interface with a number of steps or prompts.

Lorenzo and Giovanni Caggioni

Lorenzo is working to make Google Assistant extra accessible for his brother, Giovanni, who has Down syndrome, is blind, and would not converse.


Giovanni has not too long ago been working with therapists to discover ways to use a communication machine with large buttons that hook up with a tool and play a prerecorded voice response. These buttons, which use the usual Augmentative and Various Communication framework, or an alternate approach of speaking to interchange speech and written textual content, connect to a tool and might work as an on/off change or might be chained collectively to deal with extra complicated requests.  

Lorenzo determined to create a gateway machine that might enable Giovanni to make use of these buttons, which he is already aware of, to entry Google Dwelling. The workforce created a small field related to a button utilizing the identical headphone jack used for a telephone, laptop computer or pill, utilizing a wired headphone jack, that’s then related through Bluetooth to entry a Google Dwelling machine. Now, by merely touching a button, Giovanni can hearken to music or watch a film.

Edge-Savage stated many people who find themselves unable to talk are already utilizing AAC gadgets to press a button or an icon on a pill or another specifically designed machine to play preprogrammed voice instructions for digital assistants. However Lorenzo’s resolution bypasses the necessity for separate gadgets to generate a voice command. For folks like Giovanni, who’re simply studying to make use of an AAC machine, this might be a useful software. 

“To me that is magic,” Edge-Savage stated. “Here is a brother who stated, I’m going to make one thing so you are able to do your favourite factor. That is typically the place I begin with shoppers as they discover ways to talk. It is so motivating.”


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The best way youngsters work together

Proper now, Giovanni is utilizing a single button, and the content material is already queued up for him. However ultimately the system might be expanded to let him select from a wide range of content material and should even enable for extra looking capabilities. Lorenzo stated his workforce has plans to connect RFID tags that might be coupled with footage with totally different info queued up.

“You possibly can have these buttons all around the home,” Lorenzo stated. He describes the system as a kind of jukebox, with buttons set as much as inform him the climate, give him the information or inform a joke.

Even within the present setup, Lorenzo says it has been a recreation changer for Giovanni. On a current go to to his mother and father’ home, Giovanni was watching TV with Lorenzo’s younger youngsters. Apparently, Giovanni did not like what they have been watching, so he went over to the TV, pressed the button and switched to Discovering Nemo, his favourite film.

“On this approach, Giovanni is ready to compete with my youngsters,” Lorenzo stated. “That is the way in which my youngsters work together with one another; whoever controls the distant management decides what they watch. And now Giovanni is ready to be part of them and has management, too.”

This drawing illustrates how the technology created in Project Diva can be used to provide alternative inputs to a device powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant.

This drawing illustrates how the expertise created in Mission Diva can be utilized to offer various inputs to a tool powered by the voice-activated Google Assistant. 


Whereas this process of merely altering the TV could appear insignificant, Angela Standridge, a speech-language pathologist, who makes a speciality of the usage of augmentative communication expertise, stated even this primary type of communication is important for somebody like Giovanni who has restricted communication.

“Probably the most highly effective factor I do in my observe is educate folks to speak ‘cease’ or ‘do not,”http://www.cnet.com/” she stated. “The entire cause to speak is to regulate your atmosphere. Having that sense of company and management is key to us as people.”

Making tech accessible

Assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant generally is a lifeline for sure communities just like the blind or visually impaired, or these with bodily disabilities, however the want for voice instructions leaves out a slew of different folks. 

It could be higher for corporations to think about these populations as they design their merchandise, in order that they are often accessible to as many individuals as doable, Edge-Savage stated, including that there are lots of methods to hack mainstream expertise to make it accessible. Lorenzo’s system is an effective instance of such a hack — even when it was finished in home. 

Google can be utilizing machine studying as a part of one other initiative, Mission Euphonia, to make it simpler for folks with slurred or hard-to-understand speech to make use of Google Assistant.

“Constructing for everybody means guaranteeing that everybody can entry our merchandise,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated on stage at Google I/O. “We consider expertise might help us be extra inclusive, and AI is offering us with new instruments to dramatically enhance the expertise for folks with disabilities.”

However some specialists say that large tech corporations might be doing extra. Standridge stated Google and different large corporations want to consider folks with disabilities once they first design these merchandise.

“Accessibility continues to be an afterthought for all the large tech corporations,” she stated. “They’re retrofitted for folks with disabilities. In the event that they used common design when arising with their merchandise, they’d have a software that might be accessed by the widest vary of skills from the beginning.”


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