Why this developer cried when he watched Comcast's 'talking TV guide' commercial - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 6, 2015 9:32 am

Why this developer cried when he watched Comcast’s ‘talking TV guide’ commercial

The commercial made Andrew Larkin, project lead on Comcast's talking TV guide for the blind and visually impaired, realize the importance of his work. He lives in Chicago now, but, as this Exit Interview makes clear, Philly is still home.

Andrew Larkin at BarCamp 2014.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Andrew Larkin spent nearly a year working on Comcast’s talking TV guide. It was hard. Developers are so used to thinking of interfaces from a visual angle, he said. This was all focused on audio.

Larkin, 36, left Philadelphia right before the guide launched in beta last fall, moving because his wife was going to get her Ph.D. at Northwestern University. It wasn’t until he saw Comcast’s commercial for the X1 Talking Guide that ran during the Oscars that it hit him, he said.

“Real tears came to my eyes, because I knew, right then, that this was something absolutely unbelievable, and that I should be proud of the part I took in building it,” Larkin said.

In his Technical.ly Philly Exit Interview, he wrote about the guide:

This is not a regulatory requirement or an afterthought. This is a marketable product. It’s a product that I helped build. The pride that I feel about that, it’s something I’ll carry with me forever.

###

How did you come to live and work in Philly? Walk us through your work history here.

I moved to the Philly area in 2008 at the suggestion of a good friend of mine. At the time, I was living in Cape Cod, Mass., working as a web designer. I don’t want to suggest that living in Cape Cod is a bad thing, but I think I was starting to go a little crazy. I wanted to be in a city. Boston was too close to home. New York was too intimidating. Philadelphia seemed just right.

I spent the first couple of years in the Philadelphia area living in Glenolden. I was set on the idea of running my own web design company, so I set up shop in my apartment and gave it a go. I knew there was a lot that I didn’t know, but I had no idea how much there was that I didn’t know. In then end, it didn’t work out, but I’m actually really glad I did try to do it on my own before joining a company. It taught me humility, which ultimately made me a better learner.

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I moved from Glenolden to West Philly to be closer to my girlfriend (now wife). I started working for a company down in New Castle, Del., writing JavaScript apps. It was tough, and the people I worked with were tough on me, but I learned a ton. A year-and-a-half later I started working for Comcast Interactive Media. I spent three glorious years at Comcast, first as a software engineer, and then as the technical lead for accessibility.

I was 29 when I moved to Philly. I’m 36 now. In those seven years, I started a business and failed at it. I went from being a novice programmer to building a career in technology. I met my wife, found my calling, and built a family of friends and colleagues that I’ll have for the rest of my life. I learned so very much. In short, Philly became home. It always will be.

What’s next for you? What prompted the move?

My wife is getting her Ph.D. in English Literature at Northwestern University. There was really only one force in the world that could have torn me away from Philly, and that’s the love and respect I have for my wife and her work. Ilana’s a brilliant person, a true Bryn Mawr woman, and someone I’d follow to the ends of the Earth (so long as there’s an Internet connection!). The beauty of working in tech is that there’s a place for us almost anywhere. Chicago has a great tech community that reminds me a lot of Philadelphia, in that there is a genuine spirit of collaboration and a desire to build up the community as a whole. I’ve joined some excellent tech groups, and I’m helping to start an accessibility meetup here, just like I did in Philly.

"It's an uphill battle, making accessibility a priority, but it's a challenge that I love, and one that I think will have real impact."
Andrew Larkin

I’m working as a senior software engineer for Sears, working in the downtown Chicago office. Which, in case you’re wondering, is not in the formerly-named Sears Tower (though that would be awesome). I’m working on a connected-home project building the APIs that allow mobile devices and other platforms to communicate with home appliances. The “Internet of Things” is certainly a hot topic these days, but the main reason I joined the project was because of the potential I see for it to improve the way that people with disabilities and the aging population live their lives. Think about the peace of mind the children of aging parents can have by being able to make sure the stove isn’t left on overnight.

Someone with limited mobility can start or stop a washing machine without having to manipulate physical knobs and controls. Mobile devices are inherently more accessible than the LCD screens common on many appliances. I’m working to make sure that the APIs we build can be leveraged by a variety of assistive technologies. It’s an uphill battle, making accessibility a priority, but it’s a challenge that I love, and one that I think will have real impact.

Anything that could have been done to keep you here?

My wife getting an offer from UPenn would have helped. We were sad to leave Philly. Like I said, it’s become home to us, and we come back as often as we can. We would have stayed if we could.

What was your proudest accomplishment during your time in Philly?

I’m incredibly proud of the Philadelphia Accessibility Forum. There are so many great tech meetups in Philly, but there wasn’t anything talking about accessibility and accessible technology. The idea actually came from a friend and fellow Comcaster, Angela Foell, who suggested that I start a group and have Comcast sponsor it. When it came to naming the group, I specifically chose the word “forum” because I didn’t want to brand it as a tech-only meetup. I wanted to make it feel like a group for anyone interested in or impacted by the pursuit of building accessibility into the things we use every day.

I often talk about creating opportunities for people to access technology in a way that works best for them. I built that same principle into the forum; I wanted people to contribute their strengths to the group, be they technologists, health care professionals, users of assistive technology, or people simply intrigued by the idea of building things that work well for everyone. I’m so proud of how the forum took off. It didn’t hurt that I started hosting the meetings in the Comcast Accessibility Lab, which is a playground for assistive tech. It also didn’t hurt that I had the support of such passionate people like Austin Seraphin. In fact, Austin picked up the torch for me after I left and is now organizing the group.

"I can see Philly becoming a center for accessible technology, and I'd like to think I had a hand in starting that."
Andrew Larkin

That’s not what I’m most proud of, though.

In a way, I’m glad I put off answering these questions until now, because recently, Comcast aired a commercial during the 2015 Academy Awards called Emily’s Oz. In it, a young girl who is blind describes how she pictures her favorite movie in her mind. It’s the kind of commercial that just draws the tears out of your eyes. It’s warm, it’s inspiring, and, frankly, it’s the last thing many people would think of when they think of Comcast.

The commercial is for Comcast’s new talking television, the first of its kind for the cable industry. When it’s turned on, the user hears the interface described to them as they use the remote to navigate. During development it was called Voice Guidance, though “talking TV” is a much better description. It allows people who are blind or have low vision do something they have never been able to do before — find something to watch on TV. Searching through the guides and menus on your cable box is something so many of us take for granted. It’s a life-changing technology for so many people.

Even before I officially joined the accessibility team at Comcast, Tom Wlodkowski (Comcast’s VP of Accessibility) was looking for someone to take ownership of what was then just a prototype of the talking TV guide. I spent the better part of a year working tirelessly with some amazing people at Comcast making it become a real product. It was hard. It was a lot of late nights and coercing voice technology to do things it wasn’t meant to do. We weren’t trying to create something that would just read the screen aloud. We were trying to craft a distinct audible interface. We’re so used to thinking about user interface from a visual perspective. Thinking about a descriptive UI is something completely different. It was a lot of trial and error with Tom giving me feedback the entire way.

I left for Chicago right before Voice Guidance was launched to beta in November 2014. The product was already available to a few customers by then. When it was made generally available, I was excited. There was something amazing about sitting in my living room in Chicago (now as a Comcast customer) and seeing this product work. I was sad not to be there for the launch, but happy it was real.

It was seeing Emily’s Oz, though, that really got me. A colleague sent me a link asking, “Did you have anything to do with this?” At first, I wanted to say, no, that the commercial was produced after I left, that it was the hard work of my friends and former teammates that made happen. But I watched it. And I cried. Real tears came to my eyes, because I knew, right then, that this was something absolutely unbelievable, and that I should be proud of the part I took in building it.

See, you have to understand, it’s not the portrayal of disability in a commercial that’s amazing. Remember that Budweiser commercial, with the friends playing basketball in wheelchairs with their wheelchair-bound friend? Disability is often used as a way of garnering sympathy. This commercial — a commercial aired during the Academy Awards, voiced over by Robert Redford — is for an accessible product. It’s saying that the way that this little girl watches movies is important and valid. This is the kind of thing accessibility professionals live for.

This is not a regulatory requirement or an afterthought. This is a marketable product. It’s a product that I helped build. The pride that I feel about that, it’s something I’ll carry with me forever.

Another thing: the cable industry’s first talking TV interface was made in Philadelphia. Not Mountain View, not Cupertino. Philadelphia.

Favorite tech scene memory from your time in Philly?

I believe it was the after party for BarCamp 2012. It took place at National Mechanics, and there was a stage with Rock Band. People took turns forming groups and fake-rocking their hearts out. I got up there with three friends and channelled my inner Huey Lewis to a rendition of Power of Love. It was awesome.

"My advice to other developers? Do what's hard. It's worth it."
Andrew Larkin

See that’s the thing, the people in the Philly tech scene aren’t just coworkers and professional connections. A lot of them are my friends. This kind of stuff happened all the time.

What’s your favorite place in Philly?

Pick only one, huh? I love West Philadelphia. I mean, there’s a reason I continued to live there. Especially along Baltimore Ave., past the UPenn campus between 40th and 49th streets. It’s just a great neighborhood with a combination of people that have been living there forever and young, recent college grads that fell in love with the city and couldn’t leave. There are some amazing restaurants out that way. In fact, one of my favorite restaurants in Philly is an Ethiopian restaurant, Abyssinia. It’s delicious.

Can you share a lesson with us that you’ve learned during your time here?

Don’t sell yourself short.

There was a time when I actually said the words, “I don’t know if I’m qualified for that.” I’m lucky that the person to whom I said it thought differently. There are always going to be those times when you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes you’ll have people openly question what you’re doing. You’ll feel stupid. You’ll feel like you’re going to get fired (by the way, you probably won’t get fired).

The easy thing to do in those situations is to back down and say, nah, I’ll go back to what I’ve been doing. It’s hard to push through it and to learn.

My advice to other developers? Do what’s hard. It’s worth it.

Will you be back?

All the time. I was born in Massachusetts, but Philly is where I’m from now. I may live in other cities, even on other continents, but I’ll always be back.

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