It’s a change that’s happening in a blink—quite literally. Cable giant Comcast is launching a new eye-control system that gives people with physical disabilities the power to control their television just by blinking.
Experts say the step is part science but also a key business tactic. It’s a sign that even the nation’s largest cable company, with more than 22 million subscribers, needs to be doing the disrupting or risk being disrupted. “Comcast is innovative in the first place, investing heavily in protecting its core and growing the future,” says Henry Topping, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in media.
The eye-control feature, which experts say is unique among major cable operators, lets customers change channels, pull up the programming guide, set DVR recordings, and navigate through other menus of the cable box using only their eyes. According to the U.S. government, more than 38 million adults in the United States have physical or mobility disabilities. The feature may be able to broaden its customer base, Topping says, while also showing a sense of social responsibility.
Innovations such as eye control are going to be needed constantly in the $90 billion cable and media industry, which hasn’t seen this much upheaval since the invention of radio. Cable companies spent billions of dollars over decades to lay down wire and infrastructure to deliver TV and internet service. But in a short time, phone companies jumped into the same business, while content providers demanded higher fees for popular channels.
On top of that, millions of people have “cut the cord,” dropping their cable subscriptions in favor of services such as Hulu or Netflix (Comcast itself lost more than 300,000 cable customers last year). Two recent acquisitions—AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner and Disney’s of Fox—have created considerably stronger rivals that, like Comcast, produce film and television content and also distribute directly to viewers.
That’s why Comcast is not just looking at accessibility features for growth. The company has gone all in on offering broadband internet service (it added more than 1.3 million broadband customers last year), and now it’s offering cell-phone service. It also has spent millions investing in a variety of businesses, from well-known tech “unicorns” (Lyft and Slack) to under-the-radar firms such as PrecisionHawk, which makes drones, and Ross Intelligence, an AI outfit geared toward the legal industry.