A Langford man’s experience being legally blind has inspired him to create a smart speaker app that allows people to listen to online news stories hands-free.
As of Wednesday (March 15), stories on all of the Greater Victoria Black Press Media news websites and abbynews.com can now be listened to on Amazon Alexa smart speakers using voice navigation thanks to Tim Rees.
“The spirit of it is trying to make print media more accessible for persons with disabilities,” Rees said. “It’s ideal for someone with visual impairment because you don’t have to touch a screen.”
Rees was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition when he was 10 years old. It progressed, and he was legally blind by his early 20’s.
“It has steadily gotten worse,” Rees said. “I now cannot see from the centre of my vision very well. I have some limited vision around the peripheral. This app worked out so I could build something that would be useful for other people in my situation.”
Users can launch the app by simply saying, “Alexa, open the Black Press News Reader.” Alexa will ask if you would like to hear the available news outlets or you can read out the name of the outlet you want to listen to. Users will then hear a list of recently posted articles. The app also lets users listen to any specific e-edition.
“It’s nice having a speaker you can just yell at,” Rees said. “Anyone who can see well can also use it like if your hands are busy or you’re cooking and you just want to hear your local news. You can pause, make it speak faster or slower and all kinds of features like that.”
The Black Press News Reader app can be downloaded for free on the Alexa Skills Store.
Reese started working on the project alone in June 2021 and eventually hired some voice testers and a contract technical worker. He now has four full-time employees.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting. In a perfect world, the team will keep growing and we will keep building new voice apps.”
Rees found out in December 2021 he was the small business winner for phase one of the Alternate Format Business Technology Challenge for his app proposal. After winning, he is receiving up to $150,000 in federal government funding for the project.
“This challenge was looking for someone guiding the project with lived experience like visual impairment,” Rees said. “It was kind of a no-brainer. I like technical things, computer programming and the news.”
Rees then reached out to Black Press Media CEO and chairman David Black to see if Black Press would be interested in being involved, and the rest is history.
“Right now Black Press is the only news outlet I’m working with,” Rees said. “It’s a perfect fit.”
Rees plans to expand to other Black Press websites and possibly other news outlets in the future. He’s also working on eventually launching on Google Nest and other smart speakers.