Apple defining the future of accessibility

with the public beta of iOS 11 now well underway, I thought it was time to dive in. There have been a number of improvements for accessibility but the two i would like to cover are smart invert and image description.

For the past few years the way we interact online has been changing. In the early days of the internet and indeed the early days of social media, interactions were predominantly text based. Now however, images and video reign supreme. This leaves the blind and people with low vision at a disadvantage. We now struggle to interact online. It is easy to miss out on the thread of a conversation if it begins with an image or if images are posted as comments. Facebook and Twitter have made improvements on this front, the former adding automatic image tagging and the latter allowing the user to add tags to an image. This is however, restricted. Not only to Facebook in its case but for TWitter relies on the user to add those additional tags. It is easy to see how restricting this can be for the blind and visually impaired. Dare to go outside these wall gardens and ;it becomes even worse.

So Apple’s new image description feature is welcome indeed. Interestingly within Facebook you now have two sets of tags. Selecting an image with VoiceOver initially reads Facebooks tag then a three finger tap Apple’s. This can give even more context to an image, as right now both systems seem to focus on describing the images slightly differently. Using the feature on twitter means for the first time all images can be described. It truly is a wonderful feature and i have used it multiple times in each use of an app. It is worth noting of course, that this works across all apps, so no matter where you find an image, a triple finger tap gives you that vital detail.

This leads me to Apple’s other new feature Smart Invert. Previously inverting the screen meant all images and media was inverted too. Now this is done intelligently and media is no longer inverted. This is instantly noticeable on the home screen, where icons are no longer inverted. Open an app with a dark background and the system is smart enough to know not to invert. This is truly powerful for people with low vision. This is the difference between not being able to see photos one day and you can the next. As an example, there was a point in my sight loss journey where i was unable to see faces in real life, but i could in a photo. This is because you view a photo on a backlit screen so there becomes enough contrast. However, with a white background this contrast difference can be lost and you no longer see the image. This smart invert corrects for that.

These two new Apple features for me are the greatest steps forward for accessibility in years. It is hard to put into words what it will mean for people to see photos again. Or even enable them to interact more socially online. Apple has now set the bar incredibly high for accessibility, the competition needs to take note. It isn’t about policy, its about ensuring people can always connect and engage. That is what true accessibility is..

AirPods, The Most Accessible Headphones

Headphones are an often overlooked but essential piece of equipment for the blind. Accessing a screen reader in the privacy of your own home in a quiet room is a simple affair, you can just use the loudspeaker of your phone or computer. Add some environmental noise, head outside or dare to venture into a coffee shop and the loudspeaker is no longer functional.

Headphones enable me to use my iPhone both indoors and out and about, i literally couldn’t use my iPhone without headphones. Therefore, over the years i have amassed a rather substantial collection. Everything from a cheap pair of JVC up to a rather expensive pair of active noise cancelling Bose. I am rarely seen without a pair of headphones and have them stuffed in every pocket and every bag.

I am constantly looking for the perfect pair of headphones, the pair that will make using my iPhone that much more accessible. Now i have found that elusive pair, the Apple AirPods.
The AirPods are Apple’s truly wireless earbuds. Two single ear pieces that fit snugly inside their own charging case.

They solve many of the problems a blind user has with headphones. Cables. Cables are a nightmare. Get them tangled in your pocket? Try untangling them when you can’t see. It just takes that much longer to untangle them. To the point where if I quickly need to access my phone i would prefer not too. The time taken to untangle the headphones ends up being greater than the time i needed to use the phone. So often i would either ignore a notification and vow to take a look when i got home, or place the phone close to my ear to listen. After all with a screen reader the only way you get privacy is by using headphones. Imagine if all your texts were read aloud? That embarrassing one from your friend is even more embarrassing when everyone in the lift hears it too!

So the wireless nature of the AirPods truly makes them more accessible. I can just quickly and easily slip them in. No cables to un tangle, just flip the lid of the storage case and they are in my ears for that quick check of my phone.

This brings me to one of my other favourite accessible features. Only using one of the AirPods. When you rely on sound to understand what is happening around you, having one ear focus on the screen reader frees up the other to environmental noise. Handy when walking down the street and handy at home or in a meeting. Previously if i received a notification in a meeting and hadn’t worn headphones upon entering i am left with three options. Ignore the message, go through the messy untangle process or interrupt the flow of conversation by having everyone hear your notifications through the loudspeaker. Now.I have a fourth option, just slip in one AirPod and i am away.

While out and about another side effect of being blind is generally having only one hand accessible. To navigate around i either use my guide dog or a long cane. This basically gives me no way to untangle the headphones, so i would often go for the loudspeaker approach. This is gambling with the possibility of dropping your phone as you attempt to juggle it around with one hand.

Now i just slip out one AirPod from the case, pop it in my ear and activate Siri.

There is one other fantastic bonus of using one ear piece. I double the battery life. Not to mention whenever i remove them from the case they are fully charged.

The AirPods truly have increase the accessibility of my iPhone by enabling me to use it in more daily events. I no longer have to remove myself from a social space to use my phone, these AirPods are increasing my social ability.

They truly are the most accessible headphones.

Thank goodness for technology

When my sight began to slip away, I feared losing so many things I love. After all, so much of our daily lives revolves around the ability to connect on a visual level.

My first love has always been technology and just as touch screens were becoming common place, I was unable to see them. How could I possibly interact with technology that was so heavily visual? There wasn’t even any tactility to the screen, it was a perfect smooth piece of glass. No raised buttons to identify what I was pressing, no way to memorise an elaborate process of taps and clicks – I felt lost. Lost but not defeated; I clung steadfast to the belief that there must be a way to adapt this to make it work to my benefit.

There was an unforeseen advantage- and as a result an adaptability – to this. The migration to touch screen forced the industry to reimagine how we would interact with these devices. The result was Apple developing VoiceOver for the iPhone, a gesture based screen reader. I didn’t realise it at the time but this would be my entry point to making the world accessible.

Now that my phone was equipped with the ability to read on screen items aloud, the phone became indispensable. It would be my reading tool for university, with all the books converted to digital form and my phone now reading them aloud. It would also become my window to interacting with the world at large – Facebook, Twitter, email all made accessible through this fantastic interface. It even allowed me to help my kids with their homework. It would creep into every aspect of my life becoming more and more indispensable as the days wore on. The unforeseen disadvantage: battery anxiety. My phone was now an extension of me, filling in the gaps that my lack of sight had created.

With the constant creation of new and previously unthinkable technological advancements, I wonder whether my main assistive device will even be the phone? Looking ahead 5-10 years I foresee a transitional period in the mechanics of interacting with our technology. One that will see a move away from typing onto screens and move towards spoken language, with a natural migration to a screen-less (or at least screens as we know them now) future. I believe that this technology is just on the horizon and something I relish the thought of.

Accessibility – low hanging fruit

There is a lot of low hanging fruit ripe for the picking within the inclusive design realm. So in 2017 what fruit do i think is the ripest?

Dark mode. This one feature alone implemented OS wide could make a huge difference to a substantial user base Not only would it solve a problem for the visually impaired for whom contrast is a major issue, but those with situational requirements where dark mode makes the most sense. Think late at night in bed, that white screen just makes your eyes ache.

So will there be an appetite for this in 2017? My gut says yes. If rumours hold true and the iPhone moves to an AMOLED display, we will see an introduction of dark mode. This will have a wonderful knock on affect of influencing design direction for a while. So not only we will see dark mode introduced at the OS level, but we will start to see a whole host of apps fall in line.

The dream scenario? Would be for apple to introduce a way for apps to toggle in and out of dark mode dependent on users preferences. This may be a visually impaired user using this feature instead of invert colours, or perhaps a sighted user having dark mode set for specific tie frames. I think this scenario is less likely than an OS wide dark theme and waiting for app creators to fall in line, but we can dream.

So lets see if that low hanging fruit is finally picked this year.

Lightweight night vision goggles

Night blindness is a common issue for people with low vision, especially those with Retinitis Pigmentosa. While your vision may be adequate for mobility in daylight, as the night draws in and contrast begins to drop, night blindness occurs. 
When i had sufficient vision for this to be a problem for me, I was always tempted by night vision goggles. There have even been research projects exploring this possibility. The good news is it can really help with mobility, the bad news night vision goggles are expensive, cumbersome and heavy.
Due to these restrictions i never quite took the plunge. But an interesting development once again has me intrigued in night vision. Thanks to a new breakthrough the advantages of night vision goggles can be had in a spectacle frame. There is still a need for external power, but great to see this moving forwards.
As augmented reality products advance it would be great to see this technology integrated to enable low light navigation.

Night vision goggles

Blind hiring? Use the blind

Technology has a diversity problem, as do many other companies. An immediate point of change is the hiring process, my interest was peaked from a comment by Leslie Miley, of Slack. It was proposed that a blind assessment process is used during hiring, stripping applications of identifiable data.

This is an interesting proposition and similar to one i have been proposing for a while. Don’t simply do blind assessments, use blind people to do the hiring.

Passed the application assessment stage, blind people really come into their own. The inability to see the applicant massively reduces implicit bias. It cannot be overstated how important it is to remove those unconscious bias that we all possess but find it difficult to identify. Removing the ability to visually trigger these unconscious biases will assist in improving the diversification of the hiring process.

But couldn’t you just wear a blindfold? Why use someone who is blind?

Apart from this being a terrible gimmick, social interactions can be difficult when you remove the vision of one participant. However, blind people have had years to perfect non visual interactions. To the point where if I dont have my guide dog or cane with me, in social interactions no one ever realises i am blind. I can maintain eye contact – which, greatly eases the comfort of the other participant, something a blindfolded participant would be unable to do.

Blind people have also been spending many years understanding how to read people without visual cues. Actually listening to someone, rather than adding a level of visual distraction. These advanced listening skills are something that take years to hone, and blind people have been perfecting them their entire lives.

So if yo want to diversify your hiring process, start by diversifying your hiring team.

Mixed reality systems

Project Tango seemed like a revelation a couple of years ago, a system that could do 3D mapping of enviroments in a small package. Now with the demands of inside out tracking for gaming we are starting to see other products hit the market.
I still feel this technology has a long way to go, eventually being shrunk down to a sensor that is as small if not smaller than today’s front facing phone cameras. Once we arrive at that point we enter the realm of discrete technology that is capable of augmenting reality in interesting ways.
I really see this being a product that is immensely helpful for the assistive technology arena. I will definitely be shaping the future of such products.

Mixed reality systems

Windows running on ARM

Exciting news from Microsoft that future versions of windows will run on ARM. Perhaps even more impressive it will emulate 32-bit x86, there is even a demo of Photoshop running on a Qualcomm 820.
If Microsoft can really improve the Narrator as has been mentioned recently this could be a great unification across all their devices. Not to mention it may instantly solve their lack of apps on mobile, opening the door for a Surface mobile phone.
Windows 10 to run on ARM

Computer vision for the blind

With computer vision rapidly improving, it was only a matter of time before we began to see head mounted computer vision systems. Horus, has a unique approach in that it doesn’t rely on connectivity for the visual processing. That means it will even work when the data connection is down. It covers some interesting basics of computer vision for the blind, reading and facial recognition for example. It does however, suffer from what i always conside the ultimate pitfall in these products. it was designed specifically for the blind, meaning the cost is high, as the market is small. 
There is definitely space for a head mounted digital assistant. So with a little shift in the market this product could be aimed at a wider spectrum bringing down the cost. Therefore, making it highly accessible.
However, this is a wonderful step forward and I am looking forward to seeing where products like this go.

COmputer vision for the blind