Steve Kelley

Wouldn't it be great if our smartphones were really just that, smart phones? So you could just have a conversation with the phone to add a contact, choose something to listen to on YouTube, or get a ride from Uber. To be fair, Siri and the Google assistant can often get us part of the way there, and if we know the gestures, maybe we can fill in the gaps in the conversation with the screen reader on the phone.

The Louie Voice Control app for the Android phone is taking this conversation to the next level, literally, by working with some of the most popular apps, like YouTube, What's App, Contacts, Gmail, etc. Louie is different from the other personal assistants we use, because it provides more of a conversational follow-up to complete a specific task. For example, the Google Assistant will open the Contacts app, with the command, "Hey Google, open contacts," and at that point, you need to know how to add a contact or search your contacts. When Louie is asked to open Contacts, Louie asks what you want to do: "Create a new contact," "Read all contacts," "Browse call log," or "Search for an existing contact." By following the questions and responding after the prompts, as you would with the other assistants, you get more and more of the task accomplished using only your voice, from start to finish.

Getting Started

Getting Louie is as simple as going to the Google Play Store and downloading the free Louie Voice Control App. The app installs both the Louie Voice Control and Louie Settings apps and adds a new service to the Accessibility Settings under the menu option Installed Services. Louie is then turned on like any other of the installed accessibility services by turning on the toggle switch with a double tap, if TalkBack is on, or a touch to the switch. From here, you are prompted through permissions for the app you might normally never agree to— "Allow the app to take over control of the phone," and "Allow the app to record audio." Without these permissions, however, the app won't work. With permissions granted, some minimal instruction is provided, including a brief and very useful video on how to get started. You will also be given the option to adjust some of the basic settings in Louie, such as the voice rate, and pitch of the text-to-speech. Settings can also be opened at any time by opening the Louie Settings icon installed on the home screen with the Louie icon when the app is first installed.

When Louie is enabled, a double shake of the phone opens Louie, and you are prompted with a list of apps supported by Louie and asked which you'd like to open. While Louie is on, the only gesture needed is a two-finger single tap to stop or pause the response. At that point, a verbal command may be provided. If TalkBack is on, the gestures are disabled while Louie is in charge. The command, "Stop," will end that session with Louie, and TalkBack gestures will again work.

"Hey Louie"

When Louie is enabled in the accessibility settings it can be summoned in several ways. A quick double shake of the phone got Louie's attention most of the time, although it sometimes took several shakes. In the Louie Settings, a list of the ways to get Louie's attention include a button on the notification panel, tapping the Louie icon on the phone, shaking the phone, saying "Hey Louie," and several others. By default, it appears that the voice command, "Hey Louie," works only when either the Louie Voice Control or Louie Settings apps are open. Louie can also be set as the default personal assistant, so instead of the Google Assistant you could ask for "Hey Louie." While the Louie app is increasing its capabilities, this user found it more practical to leave the Google Assistant in charge, summon Louie from the home screen with either a shake of the phone or asking Google, "Hey Google, open Louie Voice Control," and from there using Louie for the apps or tasks it is designed for.

Putting Louie to Work

Louie works with some of the most popular apps, including YouTube, WhatsApp, Gmail, Uber, and Contacts. It also interfaces with Google search to add text-to-speech to the search results, which could be a really handy feature for the low vision user (more on this below). In all the apps Louie works with, tasks are performed verbally, in response to questions Louie asks. As mentioned above, besides the verbal interaction, the only gesture is a 2-finger touch to the screen to pause the speech when needed.

For example, Louie is started with a quick shake of the phone, and says, "Hello, which app do you want to open?" The user selects one of the apps supported, like Gmail. Louie responds, "Opening Gmail, signed in as your username," and reads the subject line of the latest email, and from whom it was sent. Louie then asks if you want to read the email, search emails, or compose a new email. If you ask to have the email read, it is read with text-to-speech and at any time, touching the screen with 2 fingers prompts a verbal menu that includes such options as reply, Reply All, Forward, Delete, or More Options. More options include, Star, Block, Mark Unread, Go Back or Stop. Go Back returns you to a list of emails, and Stop may be selected for the Louie session, or just the current Gmail session. If Go Back is selected, the email list can be reviewed just by saying "Next," or "Previous," from the list, and responding to the prompt at the end of each preview or stopping Louie with the 2-finger touch to the screen.

Although Louie is not going to set up Gmail or any of the other apps initially, or prompt a user through the various setting, like a signature file in Gmail, the ability to manage most of the basic tasks of reading through the email list, deleting unwanted emails, reading, replying to, and composing emails, is really impressive. During the process, the user is prompted with the basic menu options, and these can be repeated as necessary just by saying, "Repeat that."

In addition to working in a similar way with the other apps, like YouTube, WhatsApp and Uber (check out the YouTube on using Louie with Uber) Louie can be used with a Google search to read the search results. For the screen reader user, this may not be an advantage over reading through the results using TalkBack, but for the low vision user this may be a much easier process. Ask Louie to search for a specific topic or question and follow the prompts. Louie reports getting the results and reads them, much the way it reads the list of emails in Gmail. You can ask it to read a result or go to the next or previous results. When a result is selected, Louie loads the webpage and begins reading the results. A two-finger touch to the screen provides options to go back to the list, search again, or stop the search. This feature really makes a web search much simpler and more accessible for a user not familiar with the screen reader gestures, or who just prefers navigating the search by voice.


Louie seems to be an app in progress with incredible potential to make using some of the most common apps much easier to use for someone who might find it easier to use verbal commands. Louie appears to be expanding the apps it works with to include the Android Messages app, for example, if you are willing to make Louie the default assistant on your device. As mentioned earlier, this reviewer was not able to nail down the quick shake gesture required to start Louie. Kudos to Louie for having multiple ways to wake up the app. At least once during the review, Louie was unresponsive to commands, and just kept repeating the menu options following my verbal command. In that case, the app was restarted, and the problem resolved itself.

Louie also seemed very flexible in understanding a verbal response. For example, it's not necessary to say, "Repeat that," to hear something again. "Say that again," and even "What's that?" got Louie to repeat menu options.

While the Android phone is not often the easiest device for a new smartphone user, Louie Voice Control can certainly make some of the most used apps, and most commonly performed tasks, like a web search, much easier, using relatively intuitive spoken commands. For more information, check out the Louie Voice Control website.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Steven Kelley
Article Topic
App Reviews