If you’ve ever played an online multiplayer video game, particularly one that involved a lot of team communication and organisation, then you know that many games have a degree of reliance on voice based voice chat.

There are some video games, such as Apex Legends, which go out of their way to implement party communication tools that don’t rely on spoken words, but most online multiplayer games expect players to both hear other player’s speaking, and respond to them using verbal speech. However, last week we got the news that Microsoft is trialling an update for Xbox consoles which seeks to address this, by converting voice chat to and from text.

So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about the new voice chat transcription and speech synthesis options being trialled for Xbox users. We’re going to talk about exactly what settings are being trialled, which groups of players they might be useful for, and some of the potential hurdles the update will need to address.

Let’s start off this week’s video by talking about some of the specifics of Microsoft’s new accessibility features, which are available to Xbox Insider users right now, and will likely roll out more widely in the coming weeks. Both of these are based on existing features, but being expanded in scope and utility.

First up is Speech to Text Transcription. An expansion of an existing feature, with this new setting active you can set your Xbox so that all words spoken by all players you are talking with, whether they’re in the same game as you or in a Friend voice chat party, will be converted into on screen text for you to read.

The new voice chat transcript overlay works in and out of games, is adjustable, and includes important information such as speaker tags, so you know who in voice chat said what.

Basically, players will be able to follow voice chat conversations by reading on screen text, without having to be able to hear it in real time. Where previous implementations on Xbox only worked inside games, this now functions as its own system wide overlay.

On the other hand, players who enable text to speech synthesis can type out party chat text, and have it read out to other players using a synthetic voice. There are multiple voice choices per language, which should help players to find a voice that they’re happy to have represent them to other players.

By allowing players who type text to convert it into synthetic speech, you avoid the risk of a player who is used to spoken voice chat not knowing there is text on screen, and not thinking to look and read it, by putting that message exactly where the player expects to encounter it.

These settings work in all party chat settings, and feature a lot more functionality than simply providing a simple transcription, making them considerably more useful to the end user. These settings work in more places, and offer more settings to customise.

So, those are the new settings, available now to Insiders, and in the near future for regular users. These settings will undoubtedly make voice chat more accessible to many gamers, and perhaps some groups of gamers you may not have considered. So, in the rest of this video, we’re going to talk about who these settings might help, and what questions remain unanswered about them.

So, let’s start off with the most obvious group of disabled gamers who are helped by the addition of speech to text, and text to speech, deaf gamers and hard of hearing gamers.

So, the applications for these groups of gamers are pretty clear’ If you can’t hear what your fellow voice chat players are saying, you can now read their messages instead. If you do not communicate using spoken language, then you can type your messages, and they will reach hearing teammates without difficulty.

However, there are other groups of gamers these settings help, from those with other disabilities, to those who simply have limitations in their home gaming situations.

Some autistic gamers, as well as other neurodiverse players, may not use spoken language some, or all, of the time. That doesn’t mean a given player cannot understand spoken language, they may just have periods of time where they do not use it.

I myself am autistic, and I sometimes have non verbal or low verbal spells of time where due to social exhaustion, I find it really hard to talk out loud. For gamers like myself, having the option to type chat messages, and have them read out to other players, offers me a chance to still be a part of the conversation, even when I may not feel up to speaking out loud.

Additionally, these settings offer additional support to autistic players who may struggle to process information when multiple sources of noise are overlapping, such as when squad members are talking over each other mid game. By providing a transcript, with speaker names attached, it makes it easier for players like myself to pick out individual sentences from the clutter of all the other sounds happening in a game. Transcripts can be a useful aid alongside spoken words, they don’t exclusively exist as a replacement for them.

Additionally, these settings offer support for players who might have to game with the sound turned off when playing at night, or who may not be able to talk out loud at night without disturbing those who they share a home with. If you’re in a situation where you can’t listen or talk to your teammates easily, these settings could be of help.

There are some questions remaining to be answered about these new settings as they move from an Insider feature to public release, mainly how they will interact with games that feature cross platform multiplayer. Will a PlayStation 5 player be able to hear your synthesised voice in chat? Will their gamertag name show up properly next to their spoken text in the on screen transcript? Will these features work at all in cross platform titles?

These questions are all important to answer, but overall I am really excited by the promise of these new features. Voice Chat is a routinely inaccessible part of playing video games, and anything that allows more gamers to be part of the conversation when playing is a positive.

I would love to see Sony and Nintendo follow suit on this front, because the more people are able to communicate with friends in ways that work for them, the better games can become for everyone.

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