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Dr Scott Hollier - Digital Access Specialist Posts

Apple WWDC2017 round-up – new products and accessibility improvements  

The annual Apple World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) was held recently in the USA. While there was lots of interesting news broadly, there’s also been a few interesting accessibility-related improvements coming soon to the operating systems of Apple’s most popular devices.

Firstly, the big announcement by Apple is the launch of the HomePod, Apple’s entry into the ever-increasingly-popular Smartspeaker category. Like its competitors the Amazon Echo and Google Home, the Home Pod will have Siri built into a standalone device so you can give commands such as setting timers, playing radio stations and control devices around the house. As I’ve discussed previously the smartspeaker category offers a lot of benefits for people with disabilities such as providing a verbal way for a blind person to get status updates of food cooking in the microwave or for a person in a wheelchair being able to turn on the washing machine if the buttons on the device are out of reach. However, unlike the Amazon Echo which starts at $USD50 for the Echo Dot and the $USD130 for the Google home, the HomePod will retail at $USD350 which puts it at nearly three times the price of the competition.

Apple HomePod

Apple HomePod – image © 2017 Apple

In Australia, the Amazon Echo is not currently available outside of the US meaning that locally the smartspeaker fight will be predominantly between the Google Home and the Apple HomePod. While the announcement is exciting, especially if you use other Apple products already, the biggest issue at the moment is that most of the other Internet of Things devices such as light bulbs and heating systems will only work with a particular type of smart speaker, and in most cases, that is currently the Amazon Echo. Hopefully in the future there’ll be cross-compatibility between our smart devices and smart speakers so that people with disabilities don’t have to be locked into the one ecosystem. There is currently no pricing for the Australian release of the HomePod due in December.

The upcoming version of the iPhone and iPad operating system, iOS 11, has received the most attention by Apple in terms of accessibility improvements. As the release is still in beta it’s important to note that these features may change, but AppleVis has described some of the features as follows:

  • Enhanced Dynamic Type: Text now grows to larger sizes especially designed for users with low vision, and app UIs adapt to accommodate those sizes.
  • Redesigned Invert Colors: While using Invert Colors, media content and images won’t invert with the rest of the screen making them easier to view.
  • VoiceOver descriptions for images: With images, three fingers tap to have VoiceOver describe what’s there. Voiceover can detect text that’s embedded in an image, even if it hasn’t been annotated. Or it can also tell you whether a photo contains a tree, a dog, or four faces with smiles.
  • Improved PDF support including access to forms: Tagged PDFs now receive support for reading detailed information such as tables and lists.
  • Switch Control typing: It’s easier than ever to type with Switch Control. Get access to more predictions, so that you can scan and type whole words at a time.

As a low vision user, I’m particularly excited about the ability to invert the colors without the images also inverting.

Other Apple devices will also receive some tweaks including the Apple TV which is receiving improved VoiceOver keyboard features and Braille display support, some minor tweaks are also coming to improve the Apple Watch and improved Zoom functionality will be added to Mac OS High Sierra. Additional information on all the new Apple products can be found at the  Macromers WWWDC online resource.

City of Fremantle commits to escaping the accessibility island

I recently ran a workshop titled ‘Escaping the Accessibility Island’ for approximately 40 people at the office of the City of Fremantle. The workshop was designed to support the City of Fremantle as it continues to update its web presence and the accessibility of public-facing ICT infrastructure by incorporating digital accessibility techniques across different organisational roles.

The workshop included a hands-on practical exercise of using a screen reader, an overview of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and how it applied across a variety of roles including policy officers, ICT professionals, content producers, marketing staff and communication specialists. The workshop also provided some insights into how to perform visual checks on web content and use an automated tool.

While the workshop provided valuable information in how staff can incorporate accessibility into their work practices, there was also a lot of fun had by all as the practical aspects of digital accessibility were explored.  I’d like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank everyone at the City of Fremantle for the opportunity to provide you with accessibility training.

If you would like to have a digital access training workshop run for your organisation, you’re more than welcome to get in touch.  All the details can be found on the Contacts page.

Google Lens offers next-generation image and OCR recognition for people with vision disabilities

At the Google I/O 2017 conference, Google announced its new Lens feature, designed to not only provide information about an image, but connect it to real-world information. This feature could potentially offer significant benefits to people who are blind or vision impaired.

While the idea of image recognition is not a new one for Google as it has dabbled in this area for several years with its Google Goggles feature, Lens takes image recognition to a new level. While image recognition software would be capable of identifying an image of, say, a flower,, Lens has the ability to use contextual information to determine what type of flower it is.

Other examples demonstrated at Google I/O highlight how Lens can also use photos to provide you with additional context by using GPS tracking to help give the user more accurate results. It also has the ability to identify text and make use of that information, such as the ability to take a photo of a restaurant which can then provide information on the restaurant itself, the menu of that restaurant and various online reviews.

For people who are blinder vision impaired, the Lens feature has the potential to provide significant benefits. While there are several effective apps available on mobile devices that can deliver image recognition and OCR capabilities, Lens has the additional benefit of connecting the image with meaningful data that is likely to be useful while the user is in that specific location.

Lens is expected to be introduced to the Assistant and Photos features on Google Android later in the year. Additional information can be found in the Google Lens article on the CNet website. An overview of all the Google I/O announcements can also be found on the CNet website.

Outrunning the Night arrives on Audible

I’m very excited to report that the distribution for my memoir ˜Outrunning the Night: a life journey of disability, determination and joy  continues to grow with its recent launch as an audio book on Audible, one of the world’s largest audio book retailers. This release compliments the worldwide availability of the book as a paperback on and as a Kindle e-book.

Screenshot of Outrunning the Night on Audible

The audio book has been created by VisAbility and you can listen to a sample chapter at the Audible website.

Many thanks to everyone for your encouraging feedback that the book is helping people with disabilities, their families and carers. If you would like to show your support for the book, feel free to write a review for the Audible listing so that other people can decide if purchasing the book is right for them. Additional information, including direct purchasing options, can be found in the Outrunning the Night section of this website or from the Outrunning the Night Audible listing.

Microsoft’s education push may disadvantage assistive technology users

Last week Microsoft announced that it will be focusing its efforts on the Education market by releasing a number of new products and a new edition of Windows 10 called Windows 10S. However, the way in which it is being implemented has raised concerns that people with disabilities will be unable to install their preferred third-party assistive technology software.

The move to focus on the education market is in response to Google and Apple’s efforts to dominate the classroom, with Google most notably capturing some market share due to its Chromebooks pricing and locked-down operating system which has allowed teachers to distribute them in the classroom without concern of students installing their own software or overly personalising the device.

The main concern for assistive technology users in Microsoft’s announcement revolves around the Windows 10S operating system. With the popularity of Chromebooks and its Google Chrome OS providing teachers with a lot of control over what goes on the laptop, Microsoft have created Windows 10S to prevent users from installing software that does not come directly from the Windows Store.

While the model may have merit in the context of classroom lessons, the concern is that there is currently very little assistive technology software available in the Windows Store. As such, it’s likely that students requiring assistive technology that is not built into Windows 10 will be unable to install it on a Windows 10S-based system. This may explain in part why Braille Support has only just been added to Windows 10 as without that native support, Braille displays would not have worked under Windows 10S.

While Windows 10 contains a wealth of accessibility features and its likely that a majority of people with disabilities would still be able to use Windows 10S using the built-in accessibility features, the decision to restrict installation of software to the Windows Store reduces the choice of software available. As such, some students with disabilities that require assistive technology software that is not included in Windows, it may be the case that they cannot participate with the rest of the class.

Additional information on Windows 10S can be found from the Microsoft website.