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Chatty washer cleans up access to high-tech appliances


A smooth-talking washing machine may not be savvy enough to keep a user from mixing whites and darks, but it can open doors that the digital revolution has closed to the blind.

New generation appliances are sleek, high-tech – and incomprehensible if the user can’t see the dazzling array of LED displays.

But it’s a problem that can be talked through, literally. A team of engineering students at Michigan State University have figured out a way to cheaply modify household appliances to be easily used by the blind or those who have trouble seeing.

"One of the new trends in appliances is more buttons and lights, which is a seemingly insurmountable challenge to those who can’t see," said Stephen Blosser, a specialist in MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. "If you can’t see the buttons, you just guess. But we can fix that."

Enter a senior-level electrical engineering class, in which student teams are matched up with needs. The students were unleashed on the problem: Make the washer accessible to the blind, make it sturdy enough to withstand the spin cycle and cheap enough to be readily available.

Whirlpool donated a Duet washer, the cutting-edge model that boasts a bevy of sleek buttons and lights.

The students immersed themselves in the demands of the microprocessor, and figured out how to link up a voice prompter to the machine’s existing LED read outs. But the students quickly discovered that the success would be found in simplicity.

"We figured out pretty quickly that the user isn’t going to care about the technology details," said Nathan Bedford, a computer engineering senior from Southfield. "It’s been really good to work with the consumers."

The washer clearly announces each function as it’s selected, and can also run through the full range of selections. Bedford supplied the voice, but points out any voice – or any language – could easily be substituted.

The hardware costs about $30 in mass production on the washer, which retails for about $1,300. The modifications barely change the machine’s appearance. Only a smattering of holes for a speaker, tiny Braille labels and a small volume knob belie the hidden talents.

The machine was modified for Michael and Karla Hudson, both of whom are blind, and admire the latest technology.

"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. "These modifications make it accessible to everybody."

The Hudsons are taking the talking washer home to test it out. Don Maynard, Whirlpool global product manager, said the company is actively pursuing several ways for people with a wide variety of abilities to interact with their appliances. Currently, the MSU project is not on the market.

"We were thrilled with the work done so far," Maynard said. "It’s going to provide a great opportunity on campus for students and we learn from it as well. It was a fantastic effort and we’re pleased we could participate."

Erik Goodman, a professor of electrical engineering who ran the course, already is gearing up to start the next project: a dryer.

"People want to have better control of their appliances, and our students learned a lot from this chance to attack a meaningful, real-world design problem," Goodman said. "One lesson they carried away – that with the right design, some products can be made more usable by many people without much additional cost – is one we hope they will apply in their careers."

Erik Goodman | EurekAlert!
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