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Perth Web Accessibility Camp 2017 Highlights

The Perth web accessibility community descended on the BankWest offices for the fourth Perth Web Accessibility Camp event with over 100 in attendance. With great presentations, a fantastic BBQ lunch and a lot of enthusiasm for access in the room, a great time was had by all. Here’s some of the presentations and points made by speakers that jumped out at me during the day.

Andrew Arch presenting at conference

To start things off, keynote Andrew Arch from the Digital Transformation Agency opened by discussing how government are endeavouring to provide an end-to-end online user experience. From an accessibility perspective a big part of this is due to the Digital Service Standard and point nine which focuses specifically on accessibility. Andrew also discussed the likelihood of Australia adopting the evolving standard focusing on public procurement. If the government were to adopt the standard once it is formalised it would mean that government agencies would purchase accessible equipment which in turn would support the employment of people with disabilities. Fingers crossed 2017 is the year in which this happens.

Sean Gardiner & Richard Giles from Hatchd provided a great insight into their development of the new bus port app. They explained that while the app was created in accordance with the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guideline’s (WCAG) 2.0 standard, it was also imperative that they did user testing which ultimately made sure it functioned well in the real world. Theimportance of user testing was a common theme throughout the day.

Amanda Mace from Web Key IT discussed the benefits of WAI-ARIA and how additional code specifically for assistive technology users can provide significant access benefits to people with disabilities. Matthew Putland from Media Access Australia built on this by explaining the importance of structuring headings in web content so they are logical and sequential. These presentations were great examples of both the importance of standards and also how best practice can improve the user experience.

Caine Chennatt from the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia discussed a project relating to the creation of 3D printed objects based on 2D pictures, providing an opportunity for people who are blind or vision impaired to interact with the arts in a tactile manner. Rosemary Spark also provided an important perspective on the significance of accessibity in the provision of a flexible workplace.

Two other talks which particularly resonated in terms of food for thought were Vithya Vijayakumare from VisAbility who discussed the significance of the ePub3 standard going forward for digital books and how you can embed media into books such as videos which has huge potential. Julie Grundy wrapped up the day looking at her experience in addressing the accessibility of airline flight systems and mentioned a great quote – accessibility is about quality, not just a checklist.

Scott Hollier presenting at conference

In terms of my involvement, I helped with the overall organisation of the Camp and did a presentation about the future of W3C accessibility standards. The W3C are updating the terminology and tweaking the well-established WCAG 2.0 standard by creating WCAG 2.1 in the short-term while focusing on a more evoled standard in the long run, currently known as Silver. Through my role with the W3C Research Questions Task Force (RQTF) I’ve been providing some research support to these developments so it was great to have a chance to share the information. WCAG 2.1 is scheduled for release in mid-2018 which is remarkably quick for W3C. Silver, however, is very much a long-term project. To highlight the way in which technology is changing, I did a demo of the Google Home in action, a popular digital assistant tool that highlights the current interest in the Internet of Things (IoT).

Finally no Perth Web Accessibility Camp is complete without the Great Debate, a humorous-yet-poignant reflection on topical accessibility issues. This year’s theme was ‘Getting sued is great for accessibility’ and while some great serious and not-so-serious arguments were made on both sides, it’s no surprise that the negative team came out on top as voted by the audience.

To wrap up this article I’d like to acknowledge the extremely hard work of Julie Grundy and Vivienne Conway in making the camp happen, the many sponsors including BankWest and also the generous support of everyone in promoting my book ‘Outrunning the Night’. Which sold a number of copies on the day.

CES 2017: it’s all about Alexa and the access potential of digital assistants

The world’s largest technology tradeshow, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017 wrapped up in Las Vegas earlier in the month, and there was one word on the lips of just about everyone there wanting to engage with consumer devices – ‘Alexa’, the digital assistant contained in the Amazon Echo.

Who is Alexa and what’s an Amazon Echo?

The Amazon Echo is a digital assistant launched by Amazon in June 2015. Essentially the Echo takes the form of a box connected to the Internet which is always listening.  You can communicate with it by using the word ‘Alexa’ followed by a command.   Here’s a great YouTube video providing an overview of what the Echo does and how it does it:

Why is the Echo so popular at CES 2017?

In the United States it’s very popular, and a big part of that is due to its price point.  The smaller yet fully-featured Amazon Echo Dot retails for $USD49.99.  With its relative affordability, manufactures have been eagerly making use of the Echo as an easy interface in the home to drive products.   Examples include the LG Smart InstaView Refrigerator, and the C by GE Lamp with Alexa.  Alexa can even be asked to order food thanks to Amazon Restaurants.

How this relates to access

The reason why the integration of the digital assistant is so significant in regards to accessibity is because it adds one more interface choice for people with disabilities.  For example, if you are blind or vision impaired and can’t see the panel on a washing machine, the ability to provide instructions or ask questions to a digital assistant means that the appliance is now accessible.  Likewise if a person in a wheelchair can’t reach a light switch, being able to ask Alexa to turn on the lights in the kitchen becomes a valuable tool at a relatively low cost.  While it’s still important that traditional options are available such as flicking a light switch, having more ways to interact with devices will continue to support people with disabilities going forward, and the possible uses of digital assistants are only just beginning.  If you’d like to read more about how Alexa has been integrated into the devices there’s a great CNet article featuring all the CES 2017 devices that feature Alexa.

Amazon Echo V Google Home

In Australia the Amazon digital assistant is a little hard to come by, so one option that has recently received a lot of attention is Google’s offering into this space, the Google Home.  Like the Amazon Echo it’s a digital assistant that can be activated by saying ‘Hey Google’ or ‘OK Google’ and then giving a command.  There are both similarities and differences in what it can do with most reviews suggesting the Echo is slightly ahead due to being around longer and having more support, but for people located outside of the US it’s a great option.  Here’s Google’s official promotion video for the Google Home.

Other new products

In addition to Alexa, there were some other products definitely worth your attention.  One of the ones I thought was particularly interesting was the laptop with three screens by Razer.  As a screen magnifier user, real estate can get pretty tight when zooming in, especially on a small laptop screen.  The idea I can fold out two more screens would provide a lot more space for me to view my work and I really like that idea. 

Speaking of big screens, the other hit of the CES was LG’s ‘wallpaper’ TV which is just 2.67mm thick for the 65-inch model and is so light it can attach to your wall with a few magnets.  Again from a vision impaired perspective, any giant TV with a crisp OLED display that I can almost literally throw on a  wall works for me, but its estimated $AUD12,000 price tag means it’s unlikely I’ll be buying it anytime soon.

Generally products feature at CES appear in our stores around April so it’ll be interesting to see which products make it to Australia.  Fingers crossed as new technologies continue to get supported, accessibility continues to be included.  

Registrations open for 2017 Perth Web Accessibility Camp

This year my home city of Perth, Western Australia is featuring front-and-centre as the Web for All (W4A) 2017 conference comes to town in April, co-located with the International World Wide Web 2017 (WWW2017) conference.  However, before W4A arrives a fantastic event will be held on 8 February – the Perth Web Accessibity Camp.  The Camp is hosted and primarily sponsored by BankWest and registrations are open.

 Now in its fourth year, the Camp is a one day event featuring a variety of presentations and other things relating to disability and technology.  The keynote will be Dr Andrew Arch from the Federal government’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA), the agency responsible for overseeing the implementation of web accessibility by government in Australia. 

I’ll also be giving a presentation at the event. My topic relates to some of the important developments taking place in W3C as part of my role with the Research Questions Task Force including information on WCAG 2.1 and Project Silver, also known as WCAG 3.0.

Other Speakers feature from organisations such as the University of Western Australia, Web Key IT, Media Access Australia, VisAbility and Simply Accessible.  In addition the entertaining Great Debate returns with the topic ‘Getting sued is great for accessibility’.

The event is fully catered including a BBQ lunch, a sundowner event and hot beverages throughout the day.   Tickets can be purchased for $39.95 and registrations are now open on the Eventbrite website.