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On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts

Jan 24, 2023

This podcast is about big ideas on how technology is making life better for people with vision loss.

Lots of people have voice-controlled smart home assistants like Siri, Google, or Alexa in their homes…. to listen to the news or to set timers. But they can do so much more! David Frerichs, Principal Engineer, Alexa Experience at Amazon on the aging and accessibility team, shares his design philosophy for making voice assistants more inclusive, and the preferred mode of engagement for every user. He also shares that the next stage of smart home assistants will be ambient computing, where your devices will intuit your needs without you speaking them. We talk with Lighthouse Guild client Aaron Vasquez, who has outfitted his home with smart home technology, and with Matthew Cho, a client who traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to speak to the unmanned Orion Spacecraft via the Amazon Alexa on board, demonstrating that voice assistant technology can bring inclusivity and accessibility to many jobs and industries and are not just for the home anymore.


The Big Takeaways:

  • Alexa Onboard the Orion Spacecraft. NASA partnered with Amazon to use the Alexa voice-controlled smart assistant onboard the unmanned Orion spacecraft so that engineers could guide the spacecraft from Mission Control. This project tested the possibility of Alexa for space travel while demonstrating that voice-controlled smart assistants have uses beyond the home. Matthew Cho, an 18-year-old student and client of Lighthouse Guild had the opportunity to travel to Houston to be one of the volunteers to give voice commands to the spacecraft via an Amazon Alexa device while it hurtled through space.
  • Accessibility and Preferences. David Frerichs, Principal Engineer, Alexa Experience at Amazon, and someone who works on the aging and accessibility team, has spent his career developing technology that adapts to the ever-changing needs of the user and has cultivated a design philosophy that makes clear that design choices (like voice control) that enable inclusivity for people who are blind can also become the preferred way that most users engage with a device or a tool. Curb cuts are a historical example. David often thinks in terms of “Hot tub safe computing.” What can a person do to engage with the device from their hot tub?
  • Ambient Computing. David mentions ambient computing, the next phase of smart home technology, in which a network of devices in the built environment intuit and respond to a user's needs without the user even needing to speak a command.
  • Smart Homes Today, Smart Industries Tomorrow. Aaron Vasquez is a smart home user. He uses Google Echo to power two smart lamps, operate his smart TV, and control a pet camera to oversee his rambunctious kitties when he’s not at home. As a person who is visually impaired, Aaron prefers voice command for running his home in this way. This episode asks how the smart home’s tools can be integrated into offices and industries to make these more accessible and inclusive spaces.



  • “To be able to have a rocket be dependent on an AI without anybody having to control the spacecraft is, it is really amazing, and I feel that later on that they’ll be able to use it for much more things aside from space.” – Matthew Cho, student and client of Lighthouse Guild
  • “So their goal was to eventually get different people to be able to go into space … They were trying to see if Alexa would work properly with all sorts of people, normal people. Not just astronauts, like regular, ordinary, everyday people.” – Matthew Cho, student and client of Lighthouse Guild
  • “You have … permanent need, temporary need, situational need, and preferential need that really can inform us on … how we can address [a] barrier for the particular core use case. But if we do it well, it will serve a much broader community.” – David Frerichs, Principal Engineer, Alexa Experience at Amazon 
  • “We’re moving toward … ambient computing. That is … that the system should be able to respond to the needs of the customer, even if the customer doesn’t say anything. ... That’s … where the boundaries are and where it’s gonna continue to be pushed.” – David Frerichs, Principal Engineer, Alexa Experience at Amazon
  • “We had seen this pack of smart bulbs and they were relatively cheap, and I was like, huh, that’s, that’s kind of cool. So we were like, you know what? Let’s get it. So we got ‘em, we hooked them up and that kind of is what started everything.” – Aaron Vasquez, smart home user and client of Lighthouse Guild 
  • “Honestly, it’s so much easier if I can ask Google a question and she can come up with the answer, then I’m better off that way instead of actually trying to look it up myself.” – Aaron Vasquez, smart home user and client of Lighthouse Guild 


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