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Samsung makes its 2021 TVs more accessible for people with vision or hearing disabilities

The company also is developing new innovations that would use AI to make its TVs more accessible -- and is working on making its TVs respond to sign language commands.

samsung-sign-language-recognition

Samsung is working to enable its TVs to recognize sign language for commands like "turn on the television."

Screenshot by Shara Tibken/CNET
This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

Samsung's TV lineup is about to become a lot more accessible for people with low vision or hearing issues. The company on Wednesday said all of its 2020 QLED and Neo QLED models will come with features like being able to move captions to avoid blocking other text on a video and the ability zoom in on a sign language window to see it better. 

"We don't want to exclude anyone," Byungho Kim, of Samsung's social contribution center in Suwon, said in a video during Samsung's Wednesday event. "Our technology is for everyone."

Along with "Closed Caption and Position" and "Sign Language Zoom," Samsung also showed off the ability to invert colors on a menu. It leaves the video as it is but makes it easier for people who are low vision to see the menu options. "It looks simple but to enable this technology, we had to start by re-engineering the chipset," Samsung said. Its SeeColors feature lets people who are color blind see colors, and its Learn Remote Control feature that verbally tells users what each button on the remote controls. Many of the features have been available on older TV sets. 

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"The feedback we've had from our customers has been absolutely incredible," said David Clark, director of services for the UK's Royal National Institute of Blind People, which worked with Samsung on its new accessible TVs. "It's the first time that blind and partly sighted people can use the whole of the smart TV independently."

Samsung hasn't yet said what its 2021 TVs will cost, but it's likely they won't come cheap. The lowest end Neo QLED for this year roughly equates to last year's 65-inch Q80. That TV retails for $1,500. Samsung hasn't said if any of the features will come to its older televisions. CNET has contacted the company for more information. 

Samsung unveiled the news during a streamed First Look TV event ahead of next week's CES. The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced the tech show, normally held each January in Las Vegas, to go fully virtual this year. Samsung's First Look TV event usually takes place before the official start of the show, and it typically doesn't broadcast it for the public to view. Along with First Look, Samsung will host an official CES press conference on Monday where it will likely talk up products like home appliances, and it will show off its new Galaxy S21 lineup at an Unpacked event on Jan. 14, the last day of CES. 

Wednesday's accessibility news came along with a host of other TV-related announcements from Samsung. The company unveiled a slimmer version of its Frame TV that resembles a painting on the wall; new Neo QLED TVs that take on OLED, come with solar-powered remotes and have a camera-based, AI virtual trainer to critique your workouts; and new soundbars with subwoofer microphones and Amazon's Alexa voice assistant. Samsung also said it's going green when it comes to its TVs, including by making the packaging more easy to re-use.

A more accessible world

Along with being virtual, this year's CES -- and the tech world in general -- could see some other changes. There's likely to be a focus on technology that helps people in the current environment. For Samsung's electronics business, that means innovations for people in the home, including its new accessibility features.

Globally, at least 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment or blindness, according to a World Health Organization report from 2019. In the US, over 1 million people over the age of 40 are blind, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 2050, that number could skyrocket to about 9 million because of the "increasing epidemics of diabetes and other chronic diseases and our rapidly aging US population," the CDC said. About two to three out of every 1,000 children in the US are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both years, and approximately 15% of American adults report some hearing troubles, according to the National Institutes of Health

COVID-19 has infected more than 86 million people and killed nearly 1.9 million. Some people with disabilities may be at higher risk of getting sick, but they're also dealing with issues related to lockdowns. People can't go to their normal therapy sessions or meet with their special education teachers. They may feel isolated or lack the services they normally require. Their caregivers, many of whom are holding down their full-time jobs from home, also become teachers for their children, whether they're qualified or not. 

Technology could be a way to help people with disabilities during the pandemic. In the past, people with special needs had to shell out thousands of dollars for technology that magnified their computer screens, spoke navigation directions, identified their money and recognized the color of their clothes. Today, users need only smartphones, computers and a handful of apps and accessories to help them get through their physical and online worlds. Apple, in particular, has been at the forefront of building accessibility tech into its products and making those innovations part of its regular devices, not premium add-ons.

Samsung's accessible TVs

Samsung and other TV makers have offered some accessibility capabilities on their television sets in the past. Samsung Voice Guide lets the TV read on-screen text and gives verbal feedback about the volume, channel and program. Audio descriptions, found on Samsung TVs and in services like Apple TV Plus, provide a verbal description of what's happening onscreen, and other features like high contrast, magnification and grayscale make it easier for people with low vision to see the picture. 

Samsung's new accessibility options build on what it offered before. Most of the new features will be in older sets or already are available in older TVs. Voice Guide has been available since the 2014 models, Learn Remote Control since 2015, SeeColors since 2017 models, Color Inversion since 2018, Closed Caption and Position since 2018 and Sign Language Zoom since 2019. Audio Description is available in all models of Samsung TVs.

And the company said it plans to keep innovating with new features. It has committed to expand its Voice Guide feature, which provides audio guidance for people with low vision, to cover 28 language by 2022. And it's working on new AI-based features to improve accessibility on its TVs. 

Samsung also has developed a sign language avatar to guide users through all the functions of Samsung TVs, and it's planning to add automatic closed captions to convert sounds into text, JH Han, president of Samsung's virtual display business, said during Wednesday's event. 

Samsung is also developing technology that allows users to control their TVs using sign language, he said. The TV's camera would recognized commands for tasks like "turn on the television" when communicated through sign language. Han didn't give a timeline for the new technology to be in Samsung's televisions.

"We hope to introduce many more features that offer every consumer a viewing experiencing without barriers," he said. 

CNET's David Katzmaier contributed to this report.