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Month: January 2019

CES 2019: big technology potential for people with disabilities

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the world’s largest consumer technology exhibition and showcases the products likely to appear in our shops in the coming months. While CES 2018 was more of an evolution rather than revolution, this year’s show highlighted some new products that could have significant benefits for people with disabilities. Here’s a few of my picks for new consumer technologies that are likely to be helpful as they appear in our shops during 2019.  

MATRIX POWERWATCH 2 SELF-POWERING SMARTWATCH

The Matrix PowerWatch 2  is one of the most exciting devices at CES this year. This is due in part to the watch itself, but also due to the potential application of the technology for people with disabilities. The watch cleverly uses a combination of mini solar panels and body heat to keep the watch charged meaning it never needs to be plugged in.

For people with disabilities, the PowerWatch 2 offers several great features commonly found in smartwatches such as heart rate monitoring, but the fact it never needs manual charging now makes it an option for people that may find it difficult to get a watch on and off to charge due to their disability. Arguably more exciting though is the potential of the technology embedded in other products as there could be a wealth of disability-related sensors, mobility aids and communication devices that may become self-powering. This could potentially improve the reliability of daily assistance without fear of the battery going flat.

GOOGLE V AMAZON: MORE SCREENS, MORE DOMINANCE

Over the past few years the war over dominance in the smarthome has been raging with the Amazon Echo taking the early lead. However, Google Home has well and truly caught up with most new products featured now including dual connectivity for both the Amazon Echo and google Home range of products. There are also a number of specialist products such as the Whirlpool KitchenAid which has a built-in Google digital assistant and provides premium recipe services. The thinking here is that customised devices containing an assistant can have some extra advantages such as in this instance being able to rinse the assistant under the tap if food gets on it.  

From a disability perspective, there’s a few things to take note in terms of digital assistants this year including their interaction with the Internet of Things (IoT). Firstly, it’s clear this year that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are neck-and-neck so either ecosystem appears to be well supported at this time. However, it also means that other digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are not getting much traction so any automated home integration should look to Google or Amazon as their preferred provider.

Secondly, a notable trend is that the digital assistant is appearing in more devices. This means that there is a lot of potential for disability-specific products being enabled with an assistant. For example, we may see motorised wheelchairs with an assistant which could put itself away at the end of the day, then be brought back to the bedside just by calling it.

The other aspect of digital assistants highlighted this year is the move towards screen integration, but not at the expense of audio integration. This is great news for people who are Deaf or hearing impaired as it means that there are devices that can be controlled visually, but people who rely on audio such as people who are blind or vision impaired will continue to enjoy the full functionality of the device. The effective integration of multiple interfaces is a great indicator that as this area continues to develop, our ability to control our environment will not be limited by one type of interface.

LG OLED ROLLABLE TV

Last year LG demonstrated a prototype rollable OLED TV, but this year it’s ready for the shops with a likely release in late 2019. The rollable TV could potentially have many benefits for people with a vision-related disability as the giant screen can be put away when not needed, but provides a large screen display when required such as reading text from a smartphone message or using a smartphone to take a photo of text which could then be blown up on the TV. Aside from the TV itself, we’re seeing more displays being able to use the bendable OLED technology with prototype smartphones already being foldable, so the possibility of having a giant display screen in your pocket for those times that seeing things on a large display is needed is not too far off now.

GOOGLE INTERPRETER

Another highlight of CES 2019 that I personally found really exciting is Google Interpreter. While Google has had translation features in its smartphones for some time, this is optimised for conversations between two or more people with the results being both in audio and visually shown on the screen.

A big issue I have when travelling to other countries is that I don’t have many options when it comes to languages – due to being vision impaired I can’t easily point to something or even read an English translation. The potential of being able to fluently have a conversation with someone when I arrive at a shop that has something like this available would be incredibly helpful.

HTC VIVE PRO EYE-TRACKING VIRTUAL REALITY

The last thing that has great potential is the improvements to eye tracking found in the latest version of the HTC Vive Pro Eye Virtual Reality system. Eye tracking itself is not particularly new with a number of games and even Windows 10 supporting eye tracking products. However this allows eye tracking to occur in a 3D virtual environment meaning that someone who has limited movement can step into virtual worlds to engage with games, interact with productivity applications or even potentially interact in a blended mode as Augmented Reality systems are developed with the same technology. This could be the start of significant new opportunities of people with mobility impairments limited only by the imagination of the virtual world being created.

These are just a few of my personal favourites on display. If you’d like to read more about all the products at CES 2019, please visit the CES section of the CNet website.

Domino’s Pizza USA required to make app and website accessible

Using food delivery apps can be a frustrating experience for people who are blind or vision impaired. From personal experience I’ve found this is generally due to missing alternative text or the screen reader being hijacked by a pop-up special offer that prevents the order from being completed. However the challenges of online food purchasing is about to change with a landmark legal case in the US against Domino’s Pizza.

The complaint was brought forward by Guillermo Robles, a blind Domino’s customer who said that the iOS based app on the iPhone did not work effectively with the VoiceOver screen reader. As a result, he was unable to change pizza toppings, complete the order or use coupons.

The case began in 2016 with an argument based on the belief that not being able to complete an order placed Domino’s in breach of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Specifically, the Act states  it is unlawful for businesses to deny individuals with disabilities access to their goods and services unless the effort involved places them under an “undue burden”.

Supreme pizza from Domino's

Supreme Pizza (Copyright © Domino’s Pizza)

While the case was initially lost, Robles was successful on appeal and Domino’s Pizza USA is now required to fix its website and app.

The accessibility issue featured in the case primarily revolves around the lack of alternative text for images, a common complaint faced by blind and vision impaired users of fast food apps due to the rapidly-changing nature of special products often resulting in alternative text being skipped over in the rush to promote items. As a result, a future Domino’s online store is now required to ensure that its website and app are compliant with web accessibility standards and compatible with VoiceOver on iOS devices.

While Domino’s Pizza USA is a separate trading entity to Domino’s Pizza Australia, the ruling is likely to spark other online food providers to take notice and update their content to more effectively support the needs of people with disabilities.

Additional information on the case can be found on the BBC News website.

Australian Banking Accessibility Principles: can we trust them after the ‘Albert’ fiasco?

In late 2018, the Australian Banking Association (ABA) released an update to its set of banking principles related to accessible design. The review was the first of its type in 15 years and was led by Dr Graeme Innes. The process involved the formation of an Accessibility Working Group with input from key disability sector stakeholders and technical experts. While the update was certainly a great achievement, few people in the disability community were celebrating. This was due to the the very same Dr Graeme Innes needing to fight a battle in Federal Court against Australia’s largest bank and prominent ABA member the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). The case related to their inaccessible ‘Albert’ Point Of Sale (POS) pay terminals that are now used by thousands of businesses around the country, preventing people who are blind or vision impaired from making payments of over $100.    

With the revelation that the case finally reached a settlement yesterday, it’s a good time to reflect on both the positive and the negative aspects of the banking industry. Given the irony of the ABA celebrating a job well done while one of its members was fighting blind customers in court, it’s worth asking the questions ‘How could this happen?’, ‘Does the settlement fix the problem?’ and ‘Will the new set of Principles ensure it never happens again?’

WHAT IS ‘ALBERT’ AND WHY IS IT A PROBLEM?

The ‘Albert’ POS terminal was first announced by the CBA in 2012 and promised much for businesses. Moving away from a physical keypad, the device features a 7” touchscreen with NFC, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, allowing customers to pay anywhere in a store as the sales assistant can now bring the device to them. It also has an inbuilt camera that can be used to scan barcodes for on-the-spot redemption of loyalty cards. Furthermore, the screen can also be used for the promotion of goods and services while the checkout process is taking place, providing another opportunity for shops to advertise their products.  

While seemingly great for business, for people who are blind or vision impaired, the devices were effectively unusable. When a traditional POS device with physical keys is presented, there is usually a raised tactile bump on the number ‘5’ key which makes it relatively straightforward to orientate yourself and enter in the security code for card payments. However, in the case of Albert, the user is presented with a tablet that has no tactile indicators. With no physical buttons to tap on, a vision impaired person is unable to use the device as it’s presented as a flat screen. While this issue can be overcome using tap-and-pay for small payments, any transaction over $100 in Australia requires the entry of a PIN security code. In this instance the transaction becomes impossible as if you can’t see the screen, and can’t feel any buttons, you can’t enter the code. As a result, people who are blind or vision impaired are excluded from their purchase.

While people with vision-related disabilities grew in anger over the move away from accessible to inaccessible POS devices, the attitude of the CBA focused its efforts on embracing them. Believing that it was clearly on a winner with business, the CBA largely brushed aside disability concerns and marched on with the Albert rollout. However, as more Albert terminals appeared in stores and more people ran into problems trying to use them, the CBA realised it had a public relations disaster on its hands. Stories of shopkeeper’s demanding blind people whisper their PIN security codes to them so as to complete the transactions became commonplace, putting a vision impaired person in an impossible situation: do you publicly give out your PIN to complete the transaction, knowing that you’ve just breached the terms of use for your card, or do you hold up the queue at the shops demanding a payment option that works? Clearly a no-win situation for the person who likely expected the hardest part of shopping would be deciding what to buy rather than how to pay for it.

WHY CAN’T ALBERT BE ACCESSIBLE?

If by now you’re thinking to yourself that there must be a way to make Albert accessible, you’re right – there are many ways to improve the situation. At the heart of the Albert tablet lies the Google Android operating system, and as with all Android devices there’s a wealth of assistive technology features including the TalkBack screen reader. Would it be possible to enable TalkBack and allow someone to move their fingers around the screen, feeling the haptic tactile bumps of the virtual keypad and listen to the information via headphones? Absolutely. Would it be possible to go low-tech and just throw a rubber mat over the screen and restore the tactile nature of the Albert for people with a vision impairment? It’s certainly possible. However, neither of these options have been implemented.

In my accessibility work I was fortunate to cross paths with a legal expert who was able to shed some light on the issue with the rubber mat solution. There are apparently banking regulations that prevent any sort of overlay from being used on a POS device for security reasons. The argument here is that someone could put a skimmer or something between the mat and the tablet, stealing information. In practical terms I personally find this highly unlikely given the sales assistant would have the Albert device in their possession the whole time, but I’ve been reliably told that there’s no wiggle-room on this point so the rubber mat is out.  

In terms of Android accessibility, I’m not sure why Albert can’t be set up to work the same way as TalkBack generally works when using a dial pad to make phone calls, but the escalation of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission did at least seen movement in deploying text-to-speech functionality as a potential solution. This involved a number of trials by Vision Australia and also an Albert app for smartphones whereby you could try out their solution. This was based on the idea that wherever you put your finger on the touchscreen you would immediately be on a virtual number ‘5’, then you could slightly move up, down, left or right to find the other virtual numbers. This would rely on plugging headphones into the Albert like the way in which people who are blind or vision impaired can plug their headphones into an ATM.

Although this may sound like a suitable solution, there were two fundamental problems with it: firstly, there was little in the way of audio instructions so unless you had trained yourself using the app on the off-chance you would come across an Albert terminal, it would be very difficult to understand what to do. Secondly, the chances of having a sales assistant know anything about your need to put headphones into the machine was highly unlikely meaning you still had to have an argument about the need to use the Albert terminal differently to other customers.

SETTLEMENT

As a result of the CBA being unwilling to make meaningful improvement’s, the case progressed to the Federal court where Dr Graeme Innes and Nadia Matarazzo challenged CBA to make Albert more accessible. After about a year, the CBA case has been settled with a commitment to introduce new training and a software update to enhance accessibility for people who are blind or vision-impaired. The software update will enable customers to enter an accessibility mode with an audio function that will provide voice directions through headphones to help use the virtual keypad.

THE CASE IS SETTLED BUT INDEPENDENCE IS LOST

Given that Albert complaints have been kicking around in one form or another for years, I’ve had a lot of time to consider the issues. My first Albert POS terminal encounter was when I took the family to a maze and mini-golf place in the south-west of Western Australia. I found myself praying that the cost for our family to enter would be under $100 otherwise I knew there was going to be a difficult and time-consuming conversation that would suck the happiness out of my two children standing next to me looking forward to the day’s activities. Fortunately for me it was under that price point, so I thought I’d casually ask if they’d had any trouble with the machines. The person was shocked that I would even consider saying a bad word about an Albert as from the business point of view it worked great and actively promoted their business at the same time.

This response goes to the heart of why I don’t see how the settlement will resolve the problem because unlike an ATM, you will always be at the mercy of the person behind the counter and there’s no way you can complete the process independently. With an ATM, you can walk up to the machine in your own time, put in your headphones, listen to the instructions, take your money and continue your day. With an Albert your experience will be completely reliant on the training of the person serving you. It’s great to see in the settlement that training will become a focus, but there’ll still be the need for that person to know that your experience will be very different to other customers and will take time, especially if it’s the first time a person who is blind has used it. The other issue is that unlike an ATM which is fairly consistent, there’s no way of knowing what type of device will be used for payment  – will it be one from the three other big banks which is completely accessible for my needs which doesn’t require headphones, or will it be the Albert that will take me significantly longer to complete my payment and put me in a vulnerable position? These are similar arguments made by most of the vision impaired people I’ve spoken to over the years about this issue along with organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia. The upshot is that a previously accessible and effective way of entering in payments has been replaced in select shops with an inaccessible time-consuming device that takes away your independence.

That said, in the wake of the settlement I look forward to being convinced otherwise: instead of hearing lots of people complaining about Albert, perhaps the settlement will lead to new stories whereby a person who is blind goes to buy something a few days before Christmas, gets to the front of the queue to pay for their item on an Albert terminal and the casual staff member employed just for that season knows exactly what to do while the 10 other people in the queue have absolutely no problems in waiting patiently for the first-time user to complete their transaction while trying to find a pair of headphones because the shop used to be accessible. I await such success stories with breathless anticipation.  

WILL THE BANKING PRINCIPLES HELP?

With the Albert case now settled, our attention turns to the future and whether the ABA’s new accessible banking principles can stop this type of issue from happening. Certainly the language used suggests the principles are on the right track. The Accessibility page on the ABA states that:

“When it comes to banking, every customer counts, and banks wanted to make sure that their apps, ATMs, online services, in branch services and any other banking related products were accessible to all Australians.” There’s also a supporting YouTube video.

While it’s easy to dismiss the principles considering the CBA case, they are well considered and quite detailed. To summarise them, they cover the areas of general accessibility, digital channels (websites and mobile banking), device design and use, telephone services, voice activated services or AI and specific areas related to customer authentication. I was particularly pleased to see reference to both WCAG 2.0 and WCAG 2.1 suggesting a bit of futureproofing as well.

While I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the need for this initiative coincided with the Albert mess and possibly the need for a good news story in the wake of the Financial Services Royal Commission which aired much dirty laundry on the nightly news throughout 2018, the principles offer great hope that things can get better – providing they are actually followed.  

NOT ALL BANKS ARE BASTARDS – SO DON’T BE ONE

The success of the banking accessibility principles essentially boils down to how much the banks want to fight the common Australian belief that ‘All banks are bastards’. Personally I strongly disagree with this statement as I’ve had a lot of good experiences with banks as a person with disability. The ANZ, for example, have actively implemented a very accessible online banking website and as such I’ve been a loyal internet banking customer since the 1990s. When the use of mobile apps for banking became a big deal, again ANZ put a lot of effort into ensuring that their apps were accessible for screen reader users. Likewise Bankwest (ironically owned by CBA) have put a lot of effort into addressing POS terminal accessibity with their Payment Ring which demonstrates there are great innovative solutions out there. The new banking principles are likely to enhance this effort and certainly raises awareness as to the needs of people with disability which is ultimately a good thing.

However one thing I looked long and hard for with the principles is whether it’s enforceable, and unfortunately I couldn’t see any language that said that banks ‘must’ do these things, and the Royal Commission has shown that sometimes even if the word ‘must’ is present it’s not followed anyway. The upshot is that if a bank wants to fight people with disability instead of helping them, there’s nothing in the ABA’s accessible principles to stop them. The thing that really bothered people about the Albert case is that most people understand that when you are innovating with technology, the first run will not be perfect and bugfixes will need to be undertaken to make the product work properly. Yet in the case of Albert, the CBA appeared to fix the issues faced by the broader community but intentionally skipped over the needs of customers who are blind or vision impaired. That’s the point where voluntary principles struggle: if an ABA member is more focused on fighting people with disability in court then improving its product offerings, it would be good for the ABA to also address this scenario in its principles so that there is some accountability for its members.   

It’s my hope going forward that the banks will continue to innovate with products such as Albert, but do so by making those devices accessible to international standards as is now outlined in the ABA principles. Let’s look to keep any future issues out of the courts and most importantly support the independence of the customers using it. If that becomes a reality then the banking accessibility principles may end up being far more important than they presently seem.

Registrations open for 2019 Perth Web Accessibility Camp

The time has come again when the Perth web accessibility community comes together for its annual web accessibility camp. The event will be held on 12 February at the VisAbility Victoria Park premises and registrations are now open.

Celebrating its sixth year, the Perth Web Accessibility Camp (PWAC) is a one-day event featuring a variety of presentations and other things relating to disability and technology.

I’ll be presenting on the day about my work with the W3C Research Questions Task Force as it relates to our updated W3C Note on the use of CAPTCHA. Other organisations presenting include Web Key IT and Intopia.

Additional information on registering can be found on the Eventbrite registration page. If you’d like to get a better understanding of how the day works you can also read my highlights article from last year’s PWAC event.