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.

IBM & CMU assisting in mobility

Mobility for the visually impaired is always difficult. From simple tasks as heading to Starbucks for a coffee, to jumping on a bus or grabbing a taxi. Lets take the first example, heading to Starbucks is certainly challenging when you are unable to see, but what about when you enter the store? Without sighted assistance locating the counter or indeed finding somewhere to sit is challenging.

Therefore, any technology that aims to improve any of these mobility issues is always a step in the right direction. With the fear that this blog is turning into IBM fandom, it is yet another project IBM are working on.

Along with Carnegie Mellon University, IBM have developed and open sourced a smartphone application that can help you move from point A to point B.

The app called NavCog utilises either voice or haptic feedback to aid in navigation. NavCog currently uses beacons to assist in the navigation process.

It is great to see the combination of beacons and haptic feedback to aid in navigation. Over 4 years ago I was pitching to just about every GPS manufactured that this could be an interesting direction to head. My ideas seemed sound when Apple announced the Apple watch and it used the exact same haptic feedback system I had been proposing. Further the use of beacon technology to navigate is exactly what I pitched to British Airways a couple of years ago.

I proposed using beacons to navigate Terminal 5 could not only be used to direct potential customers to shops, restaurants and gates, but also aid visually impaired customers navigate the terminal.

It is truly great to see all these ideas put together and finally implemented. We now just need a larger rollout of beacon technology!

This system could also be adapted to solve the internal navigation problem. I was speaking with Google a year or so ago about how project Tango could be utilised to achieve this. I imagined a haptic feedback device that could assist in real time internal navigation. After all my guide dog may be able to avoid obstacles, but an empty chair is an obstacle to my guide dog!

Accessibility of Facebook on the desktop

Maximising the accessibility of a website is always of great importance. As well as the developers improving accessibility there are also a plethora of tools available that increase the accessibility client side. I always encourage the use of client side tools as it makes for a richer more seamless experience.

In the quick look video below I demonstrate the ability of Hacker Vision
for Google Chrome. Hacker vision is an extension which is capable of intelligently inverting websites, by which I mean will only invert text and background elements rather than images. This is a vast improvement over say the invert feature built into Apple hardware, as the built in invert operates at the hardware level the entire screen is inverted. Resulting in such elements as images becoming inverted. Hacker Vision negates that and makes for a far more pleasant web experience for the low vision user.

The video also demonstrates the different forms of zoom available to the user, and quickly compares window zoom versus font scaling. I believe font scaling to be incredibly powerful on the client side and is something I will touch on in a subsequent ThoughtCast.

I chose to demonstrate these features with Facebook, mainly because Facebook is often cited as having poor accessibility. I do not believe this to be true I believe a fairer assessment would be to say Facebook is doing a reasonable job and it plays relatively well with client side tools. However, it must be noted that these client side solutions will work on any website and in the case of Hacker Vision can even be tailored to invert only the websites you wish it to. Therefore, a website that does have a dark theme would not be inverted.
]