The Access Technology Blog

By the Access Technology Team
Edited by Clara Van Gerven
Contact the editor

Mountain Lion: Does it Roar, or Slip in on Quiet Cat’s Feet?

By Amy Mason

Apple’s Mac OSX 10.8 has arrived in the app store and several major news outlets claim that it “Roars”. It arrives on the scene at a ridiculously reasonable $19.99 for an operating system.  Unless your OS of choice is Linux, it’s probably been a long time, (if ever,) since you have gotten an OS upgrade for so little cash. 
This of course begs the question, do you want it?  That depends on a few things.  First, will your Mac support it? Do the programs you use the most support it? Do you care about any of the new features that Mountain Lion brings to the table? To be honest, for most of us, there will be enough compelling reasons to upgrade that it will be worth the work, hassle and $20 price tag, but you be the judge. 

Support

When it comes to support, Mountain Lion definitely is not going to run on every machine.  But it will run well on most late model hardware.  Here in the office I’ve been running the preview on a late 2009 model Mac Mini with 4 GB of Ram and a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and it’s felt just a touch more responsive than Lion on the same hardware.  It’s certainly been working at respectable speeds, if not quite zippy.  According to Apple’s System Requirements (http://www.apple.com/osx/specs/) for the software, these are the minimum system specs:
•    OS X v10.6.8 or later
•    2GB of memory
•    8GB of available space
And these are the models it will work with:
•    Mac (Mid 2007 or newer)
•    MacBook (Late 2008 Aluminum, or Early 2009 or newer)
•    MacBook Pro (Mid/Late 2007 or newer)
•    Xserve (Early 2009)
•    MacBook Air (Late 2008 or newer)
•    Mac mini (Early 2009 or newer)
•    Mac Pro (Early 2008 or newer)
If you meet the minimum system requirements you may want to take a look at whether or not the applications you use are going to be compatible with Mountain Lion.  Unfortunately, this is probably going to involve spending a bit of time researching your personal favorites, because although www.roaringapps.com has a fairly inclusive list of applications, it’s kind of a mess to navigate with screen access software.  You can do it, but it will take some work.  (You will want to hit the link for each application, because the full compatibility page does read the program’s status properly, unlike the table.)  It will very likely be easier to visit the program’s website in most circumstances to be honest, but these guys are there in a pinch. 

Features

In this latest incarnation of OSX Apple has been working to standardize their product line, and to bring a unified experience to users.  As iOS devices are by far, the most popular and profitable Apple products in existence, ever, it only makes sense to make OSX more like iOS. 
Apple has claimed that Mountain Lion has more than 200 new features. We will not be discussing all 200, (I’d be writing this until OSX 10.9 came out) but here are some of the highlights: 

Accessibility and VoiceOver

In keeping with the shift towards iOS-like appearance and functionality, the first major change we see in the “Accessibility” settings are the change of the name of the Former “Universal Access” panel to “Accessibility”.  This preference panel has also been redesigned, and all in all, works as well as it ever did, if not better.  As an added bonus, it can now be accessed via its own universal hotkey “(Option-Command-F5”) to allow the user to bring up Accessibility preferences from anywhere.  “Speakable Items” has moved here from the former “Speech” preference pane (now “Dictation and Speech”), and a number of preference screens have been redesigned.  One of these is the VoiceOver screen which now allows the user to begin the Quick-Start Tutorial. 
Apple has announced support for 14 more Braille displays which brings their list of supported Braille displays up to 54. (Good luck finding out which are the new one’s though, because Apple doesn’t say.) 
The “Menu Extras” and “Search” behave a little differently in VoiceOver than they did previously.  Now, to activate one of the “Menu Extras” a user must use VO + Space, as VO + down arrow no longer functions.  The search is also different as users no longer press VO+MMM, but instead VO+MM and move across to it like other menu items in this section. 
Sadly, not all is roses in the update.  Table support, or lack thereof, in Pages appears to be largely unchanged, at least prior to the as of yet untested version 9.2 upgrade of iWork. Furthermore, PDF viewing still falls rather short of really functional, but that’s what the accessibility@apple.com e-mail address is for.  (Keep those cards and letters coming!)  If you happen to have AppleCare on your Mac, it may not hurt to call the Accessibility help-line either.  The number is 1-877-204-3930. 

Notification Center

Once again, Apple has brought over another iOS staple.  It sits in the right-hand corner of your “Menu Extras” on the top of the screen, and allows the user to pull it out to see what’s been happening in their world.  New e-mail messages, tweets (only mentions and direct messages), and system messages of all types can be viewed from the notification center, and in some cases, new tasks (such as sending tweets) can actually be initiated from the same list.  Settings are fairly granular and allow for a fair amount of control, so tweak it to your liking, or turn off the notifications and ignore it if you aren’t a fan. 

Dictation

Let’s have a little fun with this feature.  Below, please find my initial thoughts on the dictation feature, as dictated on the Mac into the Notes application.  (I have a fairly plain, unaccented voice, so recognition may be better for me than for others.  That being said, I do not often dictate my thoughts, so the following paragraph will be somewhat less cogent than the rest of this post.  (Where the dictation introduced errors, I will be leaving my intended thoughts in parenthesis.)
“This is a test of the dictation feature on iOS. I wonder how well it will recognize my voice. Excuse me, I misspoke, this is not the dictation feature on iOS this is the dictation feature on OS X.  (T)his is a fairly impressive feat, however, some people are concerned with the fact that this speech is sent to Apple servers and believes that it may constitute a privacy concern. This is extremely powerful recognition, however, you can only type short sentences with your voice. Because everything is being sent to the web, if you speak too long Apple forgets what you've said and you no longer have the sentence that you spoke(.) (O)thers tested this feature, and found that the maximum suggested dictation time is approximately 30 seconds.  There were a few minor errors which would have to be corrected in this paragraph, however, it is useful to be able to type short sentences with your voice in some situations.  Interestingly, most possible errors and (in) recognition, offer a AutoCorrect option so that the user can easily correct any errors made in the recognition process. Please forgive any floating us (floatiness) in my dictation. I am used to typing my thoughts and therefore find it difficult to speak them to a computer. As you can see this works well for those who would find it helpful for short sentences and cleans up most text errors very well. I will be returning here (you) now to your regularly scheduled, type written, article about Mac OSx (OS X) 10.8 Mountain lion.”
Dictation can be enabled by pressing “Fn” twice quickly. This can be changed in system preferences if your Mac doesn’t have and Fn key. It can be told to convert the spoken text via the same keystroke.  All in all, it’s a pretty neat feature.  I don’t know how much I will use it, as I stated above, I am not all that comfortable with dictation, but it’s well-implemented and sure to be a boon to many users. 

Messages

iChat is gone, and replaced, surprise, surprise, by Messages.  If a user signs in with their Apple ID and password, they can have Messages sent to any of their iOS devices as well as their Mac.  It also offers support for Jabber, Google Talk, Yahoo, and AIM.  Personally, I am a bit miffed that MSN isn’t in the list, but I expect that I am not in the majority with that one.  Otherwise, it’s a perfectly serviceable chat client with a number of useful protocols, and an almost creepy ability to find a user anywhere they may want to be found (or lost). 

Notes and Reminders

Ripped straight from the pages of the iOS design book, (again,) these programs look and largely function just like their iOS counterparts right down to iCloud integration.  Write it on the iPhone, edit on the iPad, and read on the Mac.  Admittedly, Notes is a bit more robust on the Mac as it allows a user to change fonts, and text colors, paste in pictures and some other content, and save on the Mac, to an e-mail address or to the iCloud, but largely, it’s the notes app that we’ve all come to know on iOS with a little extra oomph. 

Power Nap

One of the most interesting (and least iOS-like) features of Mountain Lion is Power Nap.  (Unfortunately, this only works on the 2011 and newer MacBook Airs and the “Retina” MacBooks)  It allows the computer to do its “chores" while it’s asleep.  The types of projects that get in the way while the system is being used, like downloading system updates, and file indexing all work in the background while the user is away, and for all intents and purposes the computer appears to be asleep.  It’s a neat trick which is largely enabled by the solid state drives in these newer machines.  I have to admit I am pretty excited that I have one, though I can’t help but wonder how it will affect battery and other functions.  This brings us around to my –

Conclusion

I like it over all.  I think that it’s going to take a little getting used to, but largely, Mountain Lion is merely meant to act as a polish job on a number of Lion’s roughest edges, and to continue the cross-branding of Mac and iOS.  Yes, as noted above, there are a number of new features, but most are not going to fundamentally change the way your Mac functions on a day to day basis. 
I will admit that I haven’t upgraded my MacBook Air yet.  I’m waiting until I can go through the compatibility checklist for myself; I’d rather not break my fairly fragile and time-intensive Fusion install of Windows.  That being said, I think it’s a solid update, and I plan to upgrade once it’s had time to shake out, and I’ve had time to prepare.  It treads lightly and gracefully as a cat (couldn’t help myself) around the tricky business of integrating new features without confusing or annoying long-time users with unnecessary tweaks to the Interface, and adds some pretty neat new functionality.  So, does it “Roar?” No, but I do think it might make you purr with satisfaction.
Finally, for those of you who feel this wasn’t an in-depth enough review for you, check out this 28-page behemoth from Ars Technica. Apparently it’s a tradition over there.

Tactile Graphics Conference

We're putting on our first ever Tactile Graphics Conference November 30-December 1 - and on the occasion of this exciting event, the AT Team has produced its first ever YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyrVBKNKOfo&feature=youtu.be. Check it out. You can also find more information on registration, scheduling and accomodation at www.nfb.org/tactilegraphicsconference

Clara Van Gerven

Inclusive Publishing

We love events here in the Access Technology dungeons; we love them especially right after they end. The Inclusive Publishing event last week was pretty outstanding if I may say so. With 160 attendees from twenty countries and with some of the best and brightest in the industry leading sessions, it confirmed what we suspected – that there is both a need for and a real interest in broadening access to digital book. As is becoming the habit, I tweeted about it all under the nfb_voice handle, #incpub, and got to share some of the highlights that way. The presentations that we could get our hands on are being posted to www.nfb.org/inclusivepublishing. I admit that it puzzles me a little when companies come all the way to Baltimore and then turn down extra publicity for the work they do, but there you go. Corporate rules can be strange. Either way, the presenters really did a fabulous job in front of a very knowledgeable and very motivated crowd with lots of questions, so my hat’s off to them. Perhaps most importantly, the common thread in conversations I had with presenters and attendees alike was that all felt that they had learned from the event and had made some great contacts. That makes all the difference getting the small group of professionals working on inclusive publishing to spread the word in an industry that is changing very rapidly.

Clara Van Gerven

Review of the HIMS Braille Edge

by Amy Mason

Braille displays seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. More portable options which can interface with laptops, desktops, Macs, PCs and smart phones, particularly iOS devices have got more people excited about Braille displays than ever before. People are more excited about having Braille in more places, and conversations about possibly doing away with the traditional Braille notetaker have been popping up with increasing frequency.  New form factors seem to be arriving every year, and each batch of displays seems to offer new and exciting features.  The Braille Edge by HIMS is no exception to this rule.  It’s a compact, easy to carry display with a number of new and interesting features.  Thus, the question remains: How does it stack up against the competition?  This is as always, a bit of a complex question, so let’s dive right in.

The Braille Edge by HIMS is a 40-cell “smart” Braille display.  It is Bluetooth and USB enabled, and like most other displays of its class, it contains an internal rechargeable battery.    The front only has one small push button for powering on the display.  The left hand side contains a slot for a SD card (up to 32 GB are supported) and a small physical switch, which controls whether the device is in Bluetooth or USB connectivity mode.  The back holds two very small reset buttons, and the right side offers a mini USB port as well as a jack for a traditional power adapter.  Before we look at the major controls of the device, I want to just emphasize the importance of a couple of the ports and switches on the sides of the device.  First, because of the physical switch, it’s easy to turn Bluetooth on and off, and to know whether or not it’s on.  It’s not as easy to forget and burn prematurely through the battery as with other devices.  Second, although it does allow for charging via USB, it provides a wall charger, in the box, and charges fairly quickly with it.  For those who keep it connected to a computer via USB, it’s not necessary, but for Bluetooth users, or for those who use it mostly for its “smart” functions, the charger provides a great way to get rolling again quickly. 

Like other HIMS products, its “face” is mostly white with a black display and accent keys.  It has traditional Perkins style keys (including enter and backspace) above the display.  These keys are closer to the spacebar, and there is less curvature to the finger placement than on some other devices.  That being said, if a user is able to get comfortable with the key arrangement, (I don’t mind it at all, but others on the team who are more accustomed to products like the BrailleNote PK found the placement somewhat awkward to use.)  it’s really a pleasure to type on.  The keys have just the right amount of give to suit my personal preference, and I find I can type on it fairly quickly.  On either side of the Perkins keyboard, the Edge has four directional buttons placed in a circle.  The display and panning keys are just like those found on other HIMS products.  Each cell has a cursor routing key above it, and two panning keys flanking each side of the display.  Between the main keyboard and the display is a row of 8 small buttons which act as function keys, and largely correspond to well known Windows keys such as ESC, TAB, CTRL, ALT, INS, and others.  Thus, there are a lot of options for moving around and navigating quickly whether in the display’s firmware, or while using it with a screen access package. 

As previously mentioned, the Braille Edge is a “smart display” meaning that it is capable of reading and writing simple text and Braille files on an SD card. Users can carry a library of books in their pocket, or can use the display without connecting it first to another device if they need to quickly take class notes, or write down a phone number.  It is truly something of a hybrid between modern notetakers and a simple display for other devices.  The differences between the Edge’s firmware and that of a notetaker come down to matters of simplicity, and connectivity.  A full-blown notetaker will have internet access, and offer syncing of contacts, calendar and other important files between the device and the computer.  Furthermore, they can open a number of file formats not available to the Edge, and they offer internal translation for files between grade 1 and grade 2 Braille.  Finally, notetakers offer a scientific calculator, while in the case of an Edge, only simple calculations are supported.  That being said, if a user remembers that the Edge is a display first, and a quick notetaking option second, they are likely to be quite satisfied.  Personally, I would gladly give up almost every function in my notetaker for an extra 8 cells of Braille, so long as I could still read files on the go and for users like me, the Edge delivers in a big way.  It contains a simple schedule manager, alarm clock, calendar, clock, and countdown timer in addition to the previously mentioned notepad and calculator functions.  Inserting calculations, and the time and date into files are simple matters, and for a device that is going to essentially act as my notebook, and a really good Braille display, I couldn’t ask for more. 

While looking at the firmware inside the device, I feel I need to mention the most interesting option I have yet seen as a peripheral for a Braille display.  While being used in its internal mode, it allows a user to connect a computer mouse to help in selecting text, moving quickly through a document (using the scroll wheel similarly to how Freedom Scientific’s “Whiz Wheels” function,) and to make choices in the menus.  It’s an interesting idea which I like, but to be honest, I wouldn’t use it much because when I am using the display to simply read something, it mostly sits on my lap like a notetaker, and there’s no room for  a mouse in this context.  That being said, it’s clever, and it’s exciting to see the possibilities.  It’s a shame that a mouse cannot control the display when it’s connected to a PC because it would be great for moving through documents at a desk. 

While I am airing my wish list, I would like to mention two other hopes I have for the line in the future.  First, and most importantly, I like a larger display and don’t mind carrying a 40-cell device around, but I know a lot of people who would just drool over a device with the same high quality build, excellent price point, and smart features with an 18 or 20-cell display and smaller form factor.  Second, the display comes with a very serviceable carry bag, but I wish it was more of an always on case.  One of my favorite uses for it is to read on the go, and I feel unprotected with it just sitting on my lap without any protection. 

HIMS has provided nearly everything a user could want for getting started in the box with the Edge.  It comes with a power cord, USB cable, USB adaptor (for connecting a mouse), 2 GB SD card, and the leather (or faux leather, who can really tell these days?) carry bag.  It also comes with the manual in print, and on a CD which also is meant to carry any necessary drivers.

Due to an unfortunate production error, the CD shipped with our Braille Edge did not contain the JAWS driver for the device, and when I went to get it from the website, it wasn’t yet available online.  I called HIMS tech support, and they were able to e-mail me the driver without any problem.  This is an unfortunate oversight that I hope will be corrected quickly as it is the only hassle I really encountered in setting up the Edge to work with my computer. 

I want to preface this section by saying I love the device, and for the right type of user, it’s likely to be a perfect fit.  (I would consider myself the right type of user, by the way.)  That being said, I have to shake my finger at HIMS a little for falling into the same trap as has befallen other manufacturers recently.  The website and documentation once again claim support for iOS and Mac hardware, and due to some sort of hang-up on Apple’s part, its not there yet.  We all know its coming, and that when it gets here, the experience is likely to be fabulous, but until the display is able to work with these devices, it’s just better for the company to say that its not there yet as customers can be somewhat put off by getting a device and having to wait for weeks or months to use it the way they intended.

I have to mention two more unfortunate occurrences I also encountered with the Edge.  The first is squarely my own fault, and definitely makes me look a little silly, but I bet I won’t be the only notetaker user who does it.  If you turn the device off without saving your note file... it won’t auto-save like a notetaker does.  Enough said?  I feel sheepish, but when a device at least looks and acts like a notetaker, it’s easy to fall into old habits, and it’s just something that users of the device should be aware of.  The second occurrence, I still can’t say what happened, but for no reason I can fathom, it locked the keyboard one day.  It responded to use of the mouse, the Bluetooth switch, and the reset button, but I couldn’t write on the keyboard, use cursor routing keys, or any other navigational button on the top.  Eventually, right after I called up tech support (of course), it came out of it of its own accord.  Hasn’t done anything like it since, so I expect it’s just a fluke, but only fair to share the good, the bad, and the ugly, so there it is. 

Final verdict?  I love it.  I deeply wish that HIMS had waited to announce support for Apple till it was there, because it really can affect an organization’s credibility. As of late, this seems to be an unfortunate, and increasingly problematic issue for display manufacturers lately.  To be fair, it looks like it is largely caused by problems on Apple’s part, but its important for people to be aware of the limitation going in.  If you are looking for an iOS compatible device, you may want to wait and see what support is like when it’s available, but if that’s not your primary plan for using the display at $3000 it’s a good solid device, with a lot of really interesting hybrid features. Give it a look. 

Vitamix

In a time when many appliances are inaccessible, its wonderful to see a high quality blender remain fully accessible. The Vitamix 5200 is a heavy duty home blender. The controls consist of two toggle switches on either side of a speed dial. The controls are large and could be marked if desired. The Vitamix can blend, make smoothies, shakes etc. Interestingly, when run at high speed, the blades create enough friction within the liquid in a container that the liquid will become hot. As a result, the Vitamix can create hot soup. The Vitamix is a durable machine with a seven year warranty. Available containers come in 32oz, 48oz and 64oz sizes. There is also a specialized container that can grind grain into flour. Unlike other blenders, the Vitamix containers are simply set on top of the base. The shape of the containers makes it unnecessary to lock the containers in place. For more information, see the web site: http://www.vitamix.com or call 1-800-848-2649.

Robert Jaquiss

Train the Trainers

This post is a little delayed, but I wanted share with all of you some of the excitement from the Train the Trainers. We filled up the Technology Training Lab with attendees and the back room with shiny toys to show, and off we went. If you want a play by play description of the sessions, check out the #NFBTTT hashtag on Twitter – it was quite a lively affair. For future events, you can look for #NFBAT, which covers anything that relates to Access Technology.

For those of you who are interested, but who could not attend the event, you may find the materials which have now been posted to http://nfb.org/training-the-trainers to be of use. The zip file contains all of the presentation materials used, and a number of additional resources, with the exception of such training materials as would need to be obtained directly from the vendor, as is the case for Triumph Technology’s Mac Academy training. The sessions covered the following topics:

  • Notetakers - Amy Mason, Access Technology Specialist, & Anne Taylor, Director of Access Technology, Jernigan Institute
  • iOS Devices and Accessible Peripherals - Amy Mason & Anne Taylor
  • An Introduction to VoiceOver on the Mac - Earl Harrison, President, Triumph Technology
  • OCR Options – Robert Jaquiss, Access Technology Specialist, Jernigan Institute & Josh Boudreaux, Director of Technology, Louisiana Center for the Blind
  • DAISY Creation Software - Making Electronic Text More Navigable - Varju Luceno, Director of Communications, DAISY Consortium
  • Intro to JAWS Scripting – John Martyn, JAWS Scripting Expert
  • Using Screen Access Software with an Enterprise-class Application - Peter Wallack, Accessibility Program Director, Oracle & Don Mauck, Accessibility Evangelist, Oracle

Based on what we are hearing from participants, we will be doing trainings like this one again, so keep an eye out for it in the upcoming events, the blog and Twitter. All in all, and inevitable technology issues notwithstanding, I would count this a very successful training, as much on account of a terrific group of very well-informed and outspoken attendees, as because of the presentations.

Clara Van Gerven

A Quick Note on Zaggfolio, Magnification, and the iPad 3

Amy noted in the previous blog post that the iPad 3 makes for a pretty decent makeshift portable magnifier, especially at 2x to 5x or so. We recently ordered the Zaggfolio case with keyboard for the new shiny thing, and an impromptu test shows that this setup will let you use the iPad to magnify very easily. No one will be reading War and Peace with it, but a bill or receipt can be read pretty easily with the camera image magnified, especially if you use the point focus feature (tap and hold to focus on a certain area). The Folio is stable enough, unlike some cases, for a user to tap the screen without toppling the iPad. Having a stand also means that you have your hands free to move whatever you want to take a close look at. All in all, between the pretty nice keyboard, the sturdy case and stable camera viewing, this case may well be a worthwhile purchase for someone looking to use the iPad to best advantage, and with Zoom.

Clara Van Gerven

The New iPad

Apple has chosen not to give the new iPad a specific name, and has left it to the rest of us to come up with that moniker.  Some people are calling it the “iPad 3”, other’s the “HD iPad”, and still others, the “new iPad”, but despite what you call it, the question remains, is it worth buying? 

Here at the IBTC we strive to keep up with the latest and greatest in technology accessible to the blind, so Clara was furiously refreshing her browser on the day it was announced in order to purchase one for the lab.  It only just arrived, so as good little geeks, we pored over it with a fine tooth comb to give you our impressions.

First, it is, like every other iOS device, a slim, elegantly designed piece of hardware.  It has a large 10 inch screen, surrounded by a slim “frame” with a home button underneath it, and a webcam above it.  Along the right hand side there is a switch which can be used to lock rotation, or mute and unmute the device, and a rocker switch for the volume.  At the top is a power button and headphone jack, and the bottom edge contains a 30-pin dock connector for plugging into power or another device.  When the screen is off, it is nearly indistinguishable from the iPad 2.  The differences between the two devices are fairly minimal as well.  The new iPad has a “Retina” display like the iPhone 4 and newer, 4G data connections (on select models, a higher powered processor, a much improved camera, and the option to employ dictation instead of typing on the screen, so of course the question is, is it worth the purchase price?

My answer is an unequivocal maybe.  I have had an iPad 2 since November, and it has become my near constant electronic companion.  I take notes on it, I read from it, (using both Braille and speech)  I browse the web, watch videos, keep my calendar, and do about a million other things on either it or my iPhone.  In fact, although I am using a computer to write this blog post, and do most of my writing on a PC, I’ve been known to create content on it as well.

As a blind person with some remaining vision, I have sometimes used it to play games that are too small on my iPhone, or to watch videos that are too far away for me to catch details on the TV.  To be honest, for tasks I choose to use my vision for, it’s by far my favorite device.  Its light enough to lift to my face, and big enough to allow me to catch details, and if you are desperate, you can use it as a fairly crude video magnifier.  (There are better models out there for the price, and this is a hacker’s interpretation of the iPad’s skill set, but in a pinch, it can allow you to see across a room, or read a bit of text for a brief amount of time.  It’s not employing the same level of image stabilization as a real video magnifier, it doesn’t allow for the same level of magnification, the focus is inconsistent, it hasn’t got a flash, or any other internal lighting source, and users cannot change the “mode” of the camera, but in a pinch, it’s better than nothing. That being said, those are all things that are already possible on my iPad 2.

When looking at the iPad 2 and the iPad 3 side-by-side, I didn’t see a large degree of difference, the new features are nice, but nothing to write home about.  The new iPad’s screen does make Zoom a much prettier experience, because letters are much less blocky, and text is much crisper, even at fairly high levels of magnification.  Colors on the screen seem to be a bit richer, and Zooming the camera when using the device as a makeshift video magnifier works better due to the better optics in the camera, and higher resolution display.  Furthermore, the dictation is nice, though strangely, not as fully-realized as Siri on the iPhone 4S and for the first time ever, the camera on the back of the device should be sufficient for running applications like DigitEyes or LookTel Money Reader with fairly reliable results.  We were unable to test the 4G connection speeds at this time, though they have been reported to be quite fast.  That being said, since the supported 4G carriers available in the US are charging fairly high prices and imposing fairly low data caps, it’s questionable how useful this is likely to actually be for most users. 

So, final verdict: if this is the first iOS device you are considering, compare your options.  An iPhone with a cellular plan or an iPod touch may be a better option for you if you are looking for something with a smaller screen, or aren’t worried about running iPad exclusive apps. Furthermore, an iPad 2 may meet your needs if cost is a more important factor than camera or screen quality (Apple is still selling the 2 at $399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi only model).  However, if you are looking at the iPad for its size, and the screen’s resolution or camera quality will make the difference for you, then you should be fairly pleased with the new iPad. 

On a personal note, I would like to thank Apple for not leaving me with a case of buyer’s remorse for buying my iPad when I did.  I’m completely content with my iPad 2, and expect to be for at least a few more years to come. 

Amy Mason

Microsoft Security Essentials

Anti-Virus software is one of those things that everyone (including you Mac and Linux users) ought to have, but it’s not really all that much fun to think about, much less employ.  Furthermore, as a screen access software user, it’s often an exercise in frustration.  I don’t know what it is about the security suites out there, but they seem to be built with every intention of being difficult to use, cryptic, and downright unpleasant to use.  Often they are difficult to use with a screen access software (if not impossible), and they have an unfortunate tendency to be expensive, both in terms of monetary investment, and computer resources.  So, it made sense to mention an alternative for Windows users at least.  (Sorry Mac and Linux folks, I’ll have to get back to you after a bit of research.).

Microsoft Security Essentials does a surprisingly good job of securing your computer for the low, low, price of free.  I’ve used the program on my own computers at home for the last few years, and continue to be pretty impressed with it. I’m sure that many of our readers already have the program, but I find it to be a good alternative to all of the anti-virus packages that I have had to pay for in the past.  It’s less bloated than MacAfee or Norton, and doesn’t add extra bloatware to my browser like AVG. 

After downloading Microsoft Security Essentials, and installing it, there are a few simple options that you can set up as the user, such as the frequency of deeper scans, and how often the program downloads updates (though to be honest, the defaults are pretty reasonable, so even that step is optional).  Otherwise, you can just leave it alone.  It handles its business in the background, and generally, I have found it to have a very minimal impact on system resources.  Another bonus is that the interface works fairly well with screen-access software.  It’s been good about keeping Malware off my system, and doesn’t seem to suffer from a high rate of false positives, so it’s worth considering. 

If you are looking for a new anti-virus package and want to give it a try, you can either get it from the Ninite silent installer service(www.ninite.com), or directly from Microsoft at http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

 

Amy Mason

Apple Slices

03/26/2012

Below are some items from the Apple world that we thought you might want to know about.

Air Media Center

App Dynamic
$1.99

This nifty little piece of software allows you to stream both video and audio files from your PC to your iOS device.  (You have to install a small piece of software on your computer, but it’s accessible, and it didn’t seem overly resource hungry.) I have tested it on my Windows 7 machine, and it works very nicely.  It is meant to allow you to stream over Wi-Fi most easily but allows for options to create a connection over the internet as well.  It works fabulously with VoiceOver, and with the cables that let you hook your iDevice into a television or other monitor.  I haven’t tested it, but there is also a version of the server software available for the Mac as well.  It re-encodes video and audio if necessary to make them work on the iOS device, and its pretty inexpensive for all that functionality. One of my favorite apps for home use, though I personally haven’t gotten a long-distance connection up and running yet (I have poor internet service at home), so I  can’t speak to how well that would work. 

Awareness! The Headphone App

Essency
Currently Free, but for a limited time.

This app allows a user to listen to both the world around them, and their music or other sounds in the environment.  Initially, I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the app, as the interface didn’t seem to allow for a lot of interaction, but after I opened settings, I found that it contained a “VoiceOver mode” and this allowed me to have a much greater level of control over the interface and the program itself.  It works well, but it was not simple to initially set up because of a number of features with unfamiliar sounding names, but that being said, after looking at the instructions, or playing with the app a bit, you may find  some use for it.  I have only tried it in the office thus far, but, I was impressed at how well it allowed me to hear things in the environment, even conversations down the hall (which I could not normally make out) were quite intelligible.  I expect it has more power than I have yet discovered, and since its free today, it may be worth picking up, and giving a spin.

Apple's Accessibility Phone Number

Apple now has a dedicated line for accessibility issues - you can reach them at 877-204-3930. The number is also listed on the general contact page.

Braille iPhone Manual

The iPhone manual is available from Apple in BRF; you can download it from the link below, at the very bottom of the page.

http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html

iOS Shortcuts List

AxS Lab has the most comprehensive list of iOS shortcuts we have found to date - you may find it useful.

http://axslab.com/ios-shortcuts

That's all the news that's fit to be blogged for today!

Amy Mason, Clara Van Gerven

Brailliant on iOS

As of the release of iOS 5.1 last week, the Brailliant Braille displays from Humanware are now supported by iDevices, and they are supported very well.  I connected a Brailliant 32 to my iPad, and iPhone, and was impressed by a couple of neat features.  First, the 2 sets of 3 keys that flank the display can be used together to handle all of the “chorded” (space and dot combination) commands on the iOS platform.  So to go to the top of the screen a person could do a 1-2-3 and spacebar combination, or they could hit the three buttons to the left of the display together without the spacebar.  It’s a pretty slick way to implement the command structure if you ask me.  The other extremely beneficial feature of the Brailliant with iOS is just how easy it is to invoke the initial pairing.  A user would connect to the Brailliant in the usual way, by going to General>Accessibility>VoiceOver>Braille and double tap Brailliant BI <serial number>.  After this, the iDevice will pop up with a message stating that the Brailliant would like to pair with the iDevice.  It asks if a numerical code is shown on the device, and if you answer yes, the display connects to the iOS device.  It is the easiest pairing I have seen, and I hope that other manufacturers will follow suit with their new devices.  It is also quite responsive about re-connecting after the iDevice has gone to sleep, and really it just works very nicely.

The only thing that holds it back from being the nicest portable Braille display I have ever used is the stiff spacebar which makes writing a lot less pleasant than on some others I have seen.  That being said, it’s very in tune with the Apple software, and it works quite well.

Apple has a partial list of Braille commands for iOS, and on that page they have special commands for the previous generation Brailliant displays.  With the exception of the missing joystick, most of these commands work in the same way on the new model. 
 
Just as an aside, Apple has sadly not yet released the Mac drivers for the Brailliant, though it is hoped that it will do so soon.

Amy Mason

IOS 5.1 and Braille Displays

3/15/12

Just putting this post up to warn users of HIMS products, and Braille iOS users in general that iOS 5.1 has broken support for some Braille Displays.  I discovered this the hard way after upgrading both my iPad 2 and iPhone 4.  In the case of my BrailleSense Plus notetaker, all input is disabled.  HIMS tech support has told me that Apple has said that it is a problem on their end, and it has been identified.  However, they also simply said that it will be fixed in a future firmware update.  This has not been confirmed by anyone on the Access Tech team, but there are reports of this being a problem for some Baum displays as well.  If you have not yet done so, it would be in your best interests to check with the manufacturer of your Braille display to ensure it is not affected by the upgrade bug before you upgrade.

I hope that this helps to save some of our readers from this headache.

Amy Mason

QRead

3/15/12

QRead is a new book reading solution being sold by Chris Toth, the blind programmer who is best known for creating the Qwitter  client for Twitter (no longer in development) and the Hope client for Pandora Radio.  It is intended to be a simple solution for reading a fair number of different file formats, and to provide bookmarking and search features within the text.  As a great lover of books, and a devoted reader of eBooks, I sat down with the program to give it a spin.

According to the documentation QRead is capable of reading PDF, TXT, HTML, EPUB, zipped and unzipped Bookshare titles, Microsoft Office documents from Office 2007 or newer  (.DOCX) and Microsoft Help files (.CHM).    It is intended to automatically bookmark a user’s place as they read the book and remember that place every time the book is closed, even if the book is closed because of a crash of the program or the computer.  Other highly useful features mentioned by the documentation include the ability to search forward or backward within a file, a manual bookmark system, which allows a user to have one temporary bookmark, and many “named” bookmarks, and compatibility with the major screen access software packages for Windows. 

In order to give the program a fair trial I collected a large number of different files to test its usability, and ran its major functions against NVDA, Window Eyes, and JAWS (All current versions).  My first file was a PDF document containing links, headings, a captioned picture or two, a table, and a large amount of text.  This is a very usable document in the Adobe Reader software with JAWS, so I expected that it would work well in QRead as well.  When I opened the file in QRead, I discovered that the program essentially stripped all non-textual elements from the file, and presented nothing but the straight text to the user.  In the case of this file, this actually caused a number of different problems.  First, all traditional navigational elements such as links and headings were stripped from the file, which left me forced to use the find dialog to move to the beginning of the desired section of text, instead of the links and heading structure which were available in Acrobat Reader.  Furthermore, QRead broke the structure of the file’s embedded table, so it was not clear in QRead, though it read quite well in Acrobat Reader.  Finally, when I compared the two readers, I found that QRead left out the image descriptions which were found in the original text, so if a user has a well-formed PDF, it may be in their best interest to continue using Adobe’s Reader to consume it. One advantage that I found for QRead which must be mentioned is that it allowed for continuous reading of the document, which in larger files with Adobe is not advisable (or sometimes even possible) since all but the most powerful computers seem to choke in large PDF files when using speech.

The next file I attempted was a much less well-formed PDF.  The text was available to JAWS, but there was no navigation embedded in the document, pictures were not mentioned, and the file was large and unwieldy.  When this file was loaded into QRead, it came up quickly, and it was easier to traverse the document than in Acrobat, because of the bookmark, find, and percentage slider features, and the smaller impact on computer resources.  So, for PDF, the program is a bit of a toss up.  Whether or not QRead is the better option is going to depend on what you want to read, and how you want to read.

EPUB, .docx, DAISY, and HTML files are presented as plain text, just like the PDFs are.  Specifically in the case of the EPUB, DAISY and HTML documents, this presentation strips useful features from the files, and acts as a real detriment to the reading process, though it does once again offer bookmarking, so when reading these types of files it is important to determine whether the ability to easily bookmark the user’s place is more important than to have access to navigational links and headings.  For me, the answer is clear, I want the navigation, but each person has a different reading style, and different needs.

Text files work just as the user would expect.  Since all files are read-only, this is a good solution if a user wants to read and copy bits of text from any of the aforementioned formats.  The bookmarks do give a person a fair bit of power in creating their own navigational structure, and can even be used by a creative soul as a basic system of highlighting important information within a book.  The percentage slider is a useful tool for moving quickly through a long document, or for finding out just how much longer that bit of assigned reading really is.  Finally, the find command works well enough for traditional searches through the text, though some problems were encountered with this feature, which I will outline below.

I want to preface these remarks with the statement that I do understand that this is fairly new software which was programmed by one person, and it has already been updated once since its initial release.  I expect that these problems will be rectified in time, but I discovered several problems with this software in its current form.  While running QRead on a Windows XP SP3 system, I found that the program was prone to some random crashes, particularly when opening files.  If other files were open at the time of a crash, there was about a 50/50 chance that the files would re-open upon launching the program, and whether or not those files would still have their automatic bookmark in place.  Another problem that I found was that although there was an option for using regular expressions (a special set of syntax that allows for complex searches), my tests would cause the search box to not respond when I attempted to use them.   In the same way, when searching backwards in a file, the search box would sometimes hang, and never give any indication of either finding or not finding a result.  Looking specifically at the search box for a moment, it is important to note that this program is actually more accessible to screen access software users than it is to anyone using the screen visually (with or without magnification) because it is not possible to see or manipulate the buttons in that box without speech.  I attempted to open a few files with the program that were not explicitly supported, such as an .rtf file, a .doc file, a zip file containing PDFs, an adobe protected EPUB (.acsm extension) and an EPUB 3 not because I expected them to work, but to simply see how the program handled errors and unsupported document types.  It handled the .doc, .rtf, and the protected EPUB by not offering them in the file list in the open dialog box, which made a lot of sense.  If the program cannot open the file, it’s just as well it not make it available by default.  More interestingly, the EPUB 3 and the .zip file simply dropped me back in the main program interface without warning me that the file was not supported, or that it couldn’t be opened.  It would be nice to have the program mention limitations like this when it cannot handle a document which is passed to it.  Unfortunately, there were two document types which were supported according to the documentation which would also not open on my test machine, the Microsoft help files (.chm), and the zipped Bookshare DAISY files, though as of version 1.11 of the software the uncompressed files now open just as they should.  Most of my testing was performed on version 1.0 of the software, and at that time, all Bookshare books were refusing to open, so as you can see, there has already been improvement in the program, and I only expect that to continue.

The bugs and limitations of the software do mean that it will not have as broad an appeal as it might, but QRead is becoming an interesting option for reading some books in certain file formats.  It is my hope that there will be added support for RTF files in the future, as well as the older .doc format (This is a planned feature according to the website.)  Whether or not this support is added, it will be a useful tool for reading some common file types, though it won’t be the only, or even preferred, tool for reading many of them.

Sometimes Contacting App Developers About Accessibility Issues Works

3/14/12

When I originally set out to write my blog entry on the accessibility of the top free news apps, I had started to review the top 5. And although I did test all 5, since I was writing a blog post and not a novel, I decided to simply use the top 3 for my review. One of the 2 apps that was not included in my review was the USA Today app. The accessibility issues in the previous version consisted mainly of the fact that you could not read the titles of articles in the app, much like the Fox News Channel app. I contacted the developers at USA Today with my suggestions for improvement, and was sent a reply stating that they appreciated my feedback and would attempt to take these issues in to account with the release of version 2.0. That's a typical response, if you get one at all, and I had totally forgotten that I had written it. However, the day version 2.0 was released, I received a second email from the developers stating that accessibility in this version should be improved and they encouraged me to try it out. I did, and the app is now 95% accessible both with speech and braille. While I'm sure I'm not the only person to contact USA Today to report the issues I did, it is nice to know that some app developers, especially those who work for a larger corporation, care enough to take the suggestions into account. Instead of just sending an automated email acknowledging my message, the developers took action on the accessibility issues once they were made aware of the problems. While the weather feature of USA Today is still not exactly usable with VoiceOver, all of the other sections of the app are.
The point of all this is that sometimes, contacting developers, even those of big corporations, can yield results. They have in this case, and this encourages me to continue to report issues to other app developers. The USA Today app went from being an nuisance to use, to being a joy to read through the feedback myself and others have provided to the app developers at USA Today. I commend them for their work to make this app more usable for those of us accessing iDevices through speech and Braille.

Scott Davert

Upcoming: Training the Trainers

3/12/12

On May 9-11, the Access Technology team is hosting a Training the Trainers event. The full info is at http://www.nfb.org/Training-the-Trainers - but here are some of the topics we will be tackling:

• Screen access software
• Braille
• DAISY eBooks
• Tactile graphics creation
• Apple’s iDevices
• Mac computers
• Notetakers
• Low vision solutions
• Other tools

Reporting from CSUN in San Diego

3/5/2012

As I write this, we're in the San Diego airport and getting ready to head back to Baltimore after a very busy (as usual) CSUN in San Diego. The team presented to packed rooms on iOS vs Android, as well as on Google App accessibility, on Thursday. Today, Friday, we presented on 3D tactile graphics and on running Windows on a Mac to excellent reactions. It's always a pleasure to be at CSUN, but it is gratifying, I admit, to get such good responses.

There were, of course, a number of shiny new things as well. HIMS was showing the Braille Edge Braille display and the U2 notetaker, the follow up to the Braille Sense Plus. The U2 sports some new USB ports and the option of Verizon 3G connectivity. This will be the first time we've seen 3G on a notetaker. IMAP email will also be available on the U2; the only feature that was dropped was the compact flash card slot. The Braille Edge is a really (relatively) affordable smart Braille display. With forty cells and basic notetaking capability at under $3000, it is a very competitive device that works smoothly with iOS devices.

Freedom Scientific, for their part, was showing a working model of their new forty cell Focus Blue and a mock-up of the fourteen cell version. These displays no longer have the whiz wheels that the current line has, and instead have up/down buttons. We look forward to seeing the final versions of these displays in the second quarter of 2012. No pricing information is available yet.

Still on Braille displays, Perkins was showing their Mini display. The display has sixteen cells and for $1549, has basic notetaking, a calculator, and reads brf, brl and txt files. It works with iOS and rather handily comes with a mini SD card, mini SD card reader, and a bluetooth dongle for a computer.

In other news, LookTel was showing, in addition to their tried and true money reading app, the LookTel Recognize app, which lets the user take a picture of an object, create a short voice tag for it, and recognize it again later. Plans for a central database of recognized objects are in the works but have not yet been implemented.

The team also got an early peek at Windows 8, the first Windows operating system to attempt to implement accessible touchscreen functionality. Much work remains to be done ahead of the final release, though much better speech has been put in place instead of Narrator. Currently there is a plan to have an accessibility rating system in the Windows app store, unlike what is available in other systems. The gesture set available to access various part of the OS (such as the start menu and the app store) is intuitive, though a gesture practice feature would be useful. If Microsoft can make the touchscreen accessibility compatible with the Office Suite, that would be a real leap forward. It will be exciting to see what happens as Microsoft goes through this first wave of feedback.

Those are some of our overall impressions - expect to hear more from the team next week!

Clara Van Gerven

News Apps

2/1/2012

One of the many things that one can do with a mobile phone is keep up with current news events. For users of iPhones who are blind and deaf-blind, this is no different. But are the most popular apps accessible? Below, the three most popular free news apps for the iOS platform are reviewed for their usability with VoiceOver and Braille displays.

The three apps evaluated are: NYTIMES (the New York Times Company), CNN (CNN Interactive Group Inc.), and Fox News (Fox News Digital). These were the top 3 apps in the news category in the App Store on January 25, 2012. All 3 apps were found to be updated to the latest version on the date specified above. These reviews were done utilizing an iPhone 4 (CDMA) running iOS 5.0.1 and a Refreshabraille 18. All apps were tested using their default settings. The below information does not endorse any news media outlet or any of the three apps listed below.

NYTIMES:

The biggest difference between this app and the other two reviewed is that once installed, NYTIMES is not found on the home screen, rather, it is found in the Newstand folder. Also unlike the other apps, this one appears just like the newspaper does.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this app has nothing to do with accessibility. Rather, it's one that anyone who does not pay the fee for premium content would most likely complain about. When the app is started, it will download all of the content of the paper to your iDevice. However, the amount of content one can access as a free user of the app is restricted mainly to the headlines. This both takes a great deal of time and also consumes bandwidth. If one is on a 200 MB data plan, this could become an issue, particularly since there are images with each story. Each time a user of the app refreshes the content in the app, it downloads approximately 32MB of data. When accessing the settings within the app itself and through settings/NYTIMES on the iDevice, there is no option to choose which sections of the paper one would like to download. The only content related options available are whether to store content on the phone (known as offline mode), and to disable downloading of images.

From an accessibility standpoint, this app is well put together. All buttons are labeled, and both speech output and braille work nicely.
There are several different ways of browsing articles, all of which can be found on the Doc portion of the screen in the form of tabs. From left to right, the tabs are: Top News, Most Emailed, Favorites, and Sections. When one double taps one of these tabs, once the app has updated all content, the screen itself fills with the results of that selected tab. By default, when the app is launched, Top News is always selected. if you try to click on certain content within a portion of the app that has yet to be updated, it will launch another story from the previous time the app updated its list of stories.

At the top of the screen, you will find a settings button where you can log in as a premium user, and next to that will be the information related to when the app was last updated and whether an update is in progress. If you would like to refresh the content, if you close the appp out with the App Switcher, you can then reopen it and the content will refresh automatically. It is also possible to refresh the content by using the pull down VoiceOver gesture if you do not wish to restart the app.

Starting with the Top News tab, one can navigate from story title to story title by flicking left and right throughout the stories available. To read the article, simply double tap on the title and you will be taken to the screen containing that article. You will be presented with a few options before the article itself such as the Top Stories button previous,, next, etc, along with images that can be skipped across by flicking right. Once the story itself is encountered, it can be read using standard VoiceOver or braille display commands. There are also options at the bottom of each article to make the story a favorite, share it on Facebook, and to adjust the text size. One can then navigate through the Top Stories section of the app utilizing the next and previous buttons or by returning to the Top Stories section by activating the back button and continuing to browse article titles.

The other tabs behave much in the same manor with one exception. When selecting an article from the Most Emailed or from within any of the sections of the actual paper, one can only read the first few sentences of any given article. The user can double tap the article to view 20 articles each month for free, but must pay beyond that 20 article limit. The app then indicates that the user must pay to have access to the entire article. As the author was uninterested in paying for content that could be accessed freely through other news sources, the premium content was not investigated. However, given that the lay-out of the rest of the tabs and subsections is the same as the Top Stories tab, it is reasonable to assume that the premium content is accessible with braille and VoiceOver.

CNN

When launching this app, it will automatically grab the latest news headlines. At the top of the screen are the articles featured in the Headlines section. Each Story is displayed twice when flicking across this portion of the app. The first of these two is a link that allows the user to view the story in Safari, and the second actually launches the article from within the app. When an article is selected, one is presented with the back button and an action button before the article itself. Activating the Action button gives the user the ability to either share this story on Facebook or to save the story for later viewing. After all of the news headlines, there are a series of buttons which control the category of content being viewed. These buttons are: Top Stories, World, U.S., Politics, Justice, and Entertainment. VoiceOver indicates that these buttons are all dimmed, meaning that they are unavailable, but this is misleading. Activating any of the buttons will present the user with the content available in each section. Navigation is done with each section as outlined above with the Headlines button.

At the bottom of the app, there are a set of 4 tabs: Headlines, My CNN, Video, and TV. The Headlines tab is selected by default, which was the tab just discussed.

The My CNN tab gives you local information once you have it configured to any place you desire. The news articles from that area are displayed, and one can double tap on each article to view it. However, as most of these articles are from different sources, ease of access and whether to view the article requires you to have an account varies greatly. The weather portion of this app is only somewhat accessible. It will give the current conditions and temperature, but when looking at the provided 10 day forecast, each day is labeled as "today" and only the sky condition is read/displayed. So the only way to tell what day the app is referring to is by counting the number of days from the actual day you’re currently in, and even if you decide to do that, the only part of the forecast you’ll be getting is the sky conditions.

The video tab is very accessible and each video has a title and then the length of the video is displayed. Although the videos streamed with some difficulty on 3G, they worked well on a Wi-Fi connection. The Live TV tab only works if you have a cable or satellite TV subscription, which the author does not, so this feature was not able to be reviewed.

Finally, there is the iReport. This is a tab from CNN where viewers can submit their own content. There are a lot of different types of stories submitted, and accessing the content works well with Voiceover and braille. The buttons are all clearly labeled and easy to navigate.

Fox News:

Upon launching this app, the city you have set for your current location is displayed. To the right of this, the current local temperature is shown, and flicking further to the right will display a series of buttons which are dimmed. Just like the buttons found in the CNN app that are dimmed according to VoiceOver, these buttons are actually active. They are: Top Stories, U.S., World, Politics, and Entertainment. By default, the Top Stories button is selected. Whichever button you select, the titles of each article are not accessible. Flicking right from here, the Voiceover and Braille user will find nothing, although VoiceOver does click, alerting the user that they are moving over a different icon when flicking left and right. However, with Braille, there is no indication that you have moved from story to story, and the Braille display simply goes blank. Double tapping the article will bring that article up and it is easy to read, but you must double tap on each article to find out what it is. Below the unlabeled articles, one will find five tabs: Articles, Videos, Slide Shows, Shows, and More. When you launch the app, you will be put in the Articles tab.

Starting at the top left of the screen when the app is first launched, will be the city you are currently in. Once you double tap the city, you are presented with a “more, back” button, then an edit box to search for any city or state’s weather forecast. When continuing to flick right, the current conditions for this city are readable, including temperature, humidity, wind speed, and more. Beyond this is the ten day forecast. VoiceOver presents each day, but no information about that day. Double tapping the day does nothing. However, beyond the listing of days, there are high and low temperatures listed. While not extremely accessible, one can keep track of how many days’ worth of high and low temperatures have been encountered, and count them. For example, if I have encountered 3 days of high and low temperatures, and today is Wednesday, that means the fourth set of these must be for Saturday. However, this only gives the user the forecast high and low temperature. There is no way to find out what the sky conditions will be, whether there will be a chance of precipitation, or any hazardous weather expected.

Beyond the ten day forecast, and beyond any section of this app, there is an “info” button which will give you the option to share stories with friends through Facebook or Twitter if logged in, information about the app itself, along with a redeem button, after pressing the done button which is located in the upper left hand corner, you’re returned to the screen you were at previously. Beyond the info button, there is an option to refresh your GPS location, which will retrieve your local forecast if it’s different than your current one. A button to refresh your GPS status which will see if you’re in a different location or not. If you are, the new local forecast will be displayed in the same format.

The back button, as with all apps, is located at the upper left hand corner of the screen. In this case, the back button will not take you back to the previous screen, however, but instead takes you to the More tab. For the sake of following the structure of the app, however, we will continue by moving right from the Articles tab to the Videos Tab. As with the titles of articles not being accessible, VoiceOver shows the same behavior for all five tabs. You cannot get article titles, show video titles, show names, or any other information a sighted person can simply look at before deciding whether they would like to view specific content.

At last, we have the More tab. There is an edit button, followed by favorites, weather, and audio. Double tapping the Edit button gives you a list of tabs, but once you select a tab, there is nothing to configure according to VoiceOver. There was also nothing in my favorites, since I couldn’t even read any of the article titles to see if I was interested. The final item with the More tab is Weather, which has already been covered. Of the three apps, this one is clearly the least accessible.

Conclusion:

While it’s great that most people can simply install apps on their iOS devices and have access on the go, the gap in terms of accessibility creates issues for VoiceOver and braille users. Just like reviewing any type of application in a comparison, they all have their advantages and disadvantages. While the NYTIMES app is fully accessible, you must pay extra for premium content. The CNN app is accessible and is free. However, if CNN is not what the reader desires to choose as their favorite media outlet, they may have very little in the way of choices. Fox News, sadly, is quite inaccessible with VoiceOver and braille. Given the fact that Fox News is a popular media outlet, and the 3rd most popular free news app in the app store, it is a shame to see that they are denying equal access to VoiceOver and Braille users. Just like in any form of technology, blind and deaf-blind users are being forced to choose what media they access based on whether the actual delivery method is usable.

Scott Davert

2/1/2012 | Permalink

 

DAISY videos from the eBook Accessibility Symposium

1/26/2012

The following are two recordings from the NFB's eBook Accessibility Symposium on December 6. These videos are also available on the DAISY Consortium YouTube Channel:

EPUB 3, A Foundation for Accessible Publishing
http://youtu.be/z2a7LNnEhfc

and

DAISY Pipeline 2
http://youtu.be/jnjo3kv6JMY

1/26/2012 | Permalink

 

iBooks 2

1/25/2012

Apple’s iOS devices are being adopted in schools and educational institutions throughout the United States, and are being used by students and teachers to fill a number of educational roles.  In answer to this market trend, Apple has made changes to the iBooks application to improve its functionality as a textbook reader capable of providing rich content, such as slideshows, videos, audio, and other media on the iPad.  It has also created iBooks compatible content creation software.  In the past, iBooks has been one of the go to applications for showcasing how well Access Technology and eBook systems can integrate. Blind users have been fairly pleased with iBooks, and we hoped to see good things when Apple announced the inclusion of textbooks in iBooks 2.   Unfortunately, iBooks and the textbooks available for it at this time are likely to create some new and troubling accessibility barriers for VoiceOver users.  

iBooks 2 has several functions which allow students to annotate their books, but this process is not nearly as simple or as useful for blind users as it is for sighted users. It is possible, though often tricky, to select text with VoiceOver, which can then be highlighted, but after text is highlighted, there is no indication of this in the text itself.  It can be accessed via the notes button at the top of the screen, but then it is devoid of context.  Furthermore, it is possible to leave margin notes on virtual “sticky notes” next to highlighted material, but there is also no indication of their existence if a user is reading continuously, and if a user looks in the notes section, as they would to read their highlights, the text of the notes is onscreen, but not available to VoiceOver.  A user can flick to a “margin note” and open it, but they will not have the context that note is related to.  They will not see the highlighted text associated with the note delineated in any meaningful way. 

Navigation of textbook content is further hampered by a lack of proper heading markup in all of the sample textbooks which were tested.  It is unclear if it is possible to note whether text is a heading or not in Apple’s textbook format because none of the four textbooks tested included the ability to navigate by heading despite visually appearing as headings, and even in some cases being linked to in the book’s table of contents. 

The flicking gesture is inconsistent in textbooks on iBooks 2.  When a user “flicks” from the left to the right, or the right to the left, they will usually move from one bit of content to another in a predictable fashion, but not always.  Sometimes flicking from right to left will move to a different element on the page than it should if it is the reverse of the order in place for flicking from left to right.  At other times, it is possible, depending on where on the page a user starts, or the page’s orientation, (landscape or portrait) to skip over parts of the content entirely without even knowing it was there.  Another concern related to the navigation of the books themselves comes in the form of making a blind user aware of interactive content on a page.  For example, when a book is in portrait mode, and the user chooses to read continuously, the text will be read without any indication of illustrations, videos, charts, or other interactive content.  If a user “flicks” through the content, they will often run across elements that do not announce what they are, and which only become apparent after they are double tapped.  When flicking is being erratic, these elements can be overlooked entirely as well.  Beyond these concerns, there are several other troubling trends in the way the textbooks themselves are being rendered for publication.  Below, specific examples of text will be discussed with the problems that were found in each. 

Although this first is not a textbook, it showcases a number of interactive features, and the problems, as well as the positives of accessing this book, may be instructive.  The book we tested with is Twas the Night Before Christmas, and it is published by Once Upon an App.  It is a free title and is a minimally animated storybook of the poem in question.  On the left side of the page, there is a static picture, and on the right, the user will see the text of the book.  Overlaying all of this are animated snowflakes.  Because of the way the snowflakes are animated, they constantly cause page refreshes which confuse VoiceOver and cause it to break into what it is reading and state over and over, “page loaded”.  This does not make it impossible to read the book, but much of its flow, and the pleasure of reading, it is lost.  The other feature that makes this book unique, and which does actually work well with VoiceOver, is the inclusion of human narration and highlighting the text to match the narration.  Once this feature is turned on, the book will read aloud, and automatically turn the pages, and because it is controlled by a standard Apple control set embedded in iBooks, it works very well.  If a user were to temporarily disable the VoiceOver voice to avoid the constant reminder of the “page reloads” they would be able to enjoy the human-narrated version of the story.  This book is an example of where a simple fix could make all the difference, because if animation could be disabled, or if the snowflakes were created to be explicitly ignored by VoiceOver, the rest of the book works fine, interactive content and all.

Free samples of four textbooks were downloaded to get a feel for how academic books and interactive texts would behave in iBooks.    The books chosen were Chemistry (Chem) by Thandi Buthelezi, Laurel Dingrando, Nicholas Hainen and Chereyl Winstrom; E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth (LoE) by Gael McGill, Edward O. Wilson and Morgan Ryan;  Environmental Science (ES) by Jay Withgott, and Geometry  (Geo) by John A. Carter, Ph.D., Gilbert J. Cuevas, Ph.D., Roger Day, Ph.D., NBCT, Carol Malloy, Ph.D. and Jerry Cummins.  Geometry and Chemistry are published by McGraw Hill, Environmental Science is published by Pearson, and E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth is published by Wilson Digital.  These books all showcase the potential of interactive textbooks in the classroom, but they also each provide barriers to access for blind students.  Since many of the issues overlap, there will be notation of which books exhibit each issue with parenthetical notes.

• Mathematical Equations Represented as Images (Geo) - All of the mathematical equations in the book, and not just the images of the triangles in the sample chapter, were represented as images.  If the book is read continuously, the text skips over the images as if they are not there.  Furthermore, these images are unlabeled, so there is no useful information to be gained from the images.

• Slideshows and other “Interactive Features” that cannot be interacted with via VoiceOver (All)- interactive charts and maps, slide shows, virtual tours, and keynote presentations which cannot be interacted with via VoiceOver in any way, and make the “no content” sound.  Examples include a slideshow about cell crowding from LoE, the Comparison of Fresh and Salt Water in ES, and an animation of the creation of ozone (Chem).

• Videos without descriptive text (LoE) – A video showing cell-division without any sound or description of the process.

• Unlabeled graphics (ES) - Most pictures and other interactive maps and elements are simply tagged with a number, such as “image 27636.jpg”.

• Quiz Modules with image dependent questions (Chem) - Quiz modules are included in the books to allow students to review material they have learned in the textbook, and they are very impressively well-integrated with VoiceOver.  A student can flick through the questions, and the multiple choice answers, and double tap to choose the answer they wish.  At the bottom of the screen the student can double tap a “check answer button” which allows VoiceOver to announce if the answer is correct or incorrect.  If correct, the student can flick to the next button and go on.  It works almost flawlessly.  In fact, the only problem encountered during testing was that a blind student could not answer questions based on visual charts that had no textual representation, as was encountered in one of the quiz modules in the Chemistry book.

Not all news concerning the iBooks textbook scene is bad news.  Students do already have at least the same level of flexibility as they would have reading a scanned copy of a normal print book.  They are able to search the text of the book, and use the interactive features for the search. They can also pull up more information from the web or Wikipedia, directly from the search box at the top of the screen.  Furthermore, so long as the questions do not contain inaccessible content, the quiz modules are well-implemented and could be a great benefit to students.  Finally, video controls are, unsurprisingly, very accessible, and work as they should since they are the same control set implemented by Apple for watching all other video content through Apple created Apps, like YouTube and Safari.

Textbooks on iBooks are momentous because they represent one of the most impressive and well-designed electronic textbook implementations that educators will have seen to date, and they will likely be excited to adopt iBooks as the delivery model of choice.  Beyond this, they are already somewhat accessible, which is good news for print-disabled readers.    If Apple and its partners can come together with users of access technology to ensure that these books are accessible to all students, it could bring about an exciting increase in immediate access for all print-disabled learners. 

Amy Mason

1/25/2012 | Permalink

GWSkype: Giving Easier Access to Skype

1/20/2012

Over the years, Skype has become a popular means of communication for people around the world. This is especially true for those who are blind, deaf, and deaf-blind. However, as time has gone on, the accessibility of the actual Skype program has started to drop. And while many portions of the Skype program are usable with scripts that can be installed for various screen readers, each version of the Skype released brought about changes that needed to be made to make the program more usable for those individuals using screen readers and/or braille displays to access the service as each new version of Skype itself has been released.

In late December 2011, GWMicro, makers of Window-Eyes, released a free program called GWSkype. This application was developed for use of the Skype service, and was designed with the screen reader and braille user in mind. Like Skype itself, the program is free for everyone to use. Anyone can use it with any screen reader on the Windows platform.

GWSkype was tested by the author, and found to work well with NVDA, Jaws for Windows, System Access, and, of course, Window-Eyes. The braille devices this program were tested with were a Focus 80 from Freedom Scientific, a Brailliant 32 (first generation) from Humanware, and a Braille Sense Onhand manufactured by HIMS. Speech and braille were equally a pleasure to use for all different combinations of braille and speech, with the exception of the Focus 80 and System Access combination, since these 2 are not compatible. Unlike the Skype program itself, this application has a very clean interface, and moving around in the chat history is very simple. While scripts allow for access to the actual Skype program, one must hit shortcut keys to access the various chat messages which only flash up in braille for a limited amount of time if at all. Also, while the Skype program itself requires specific configurations to work best with screen readers and often times scripts to enhance the user's experience, installing GWSkype with its default settings was all that was required to achieve the best results possible.

When making Skype to Skype calls along with making Skype-out calls, the audio was very clear. Skype-out is a service that allows a user to place phone calls to landlines at a very cheap rate. In addition to being inexpensive ($3 a month for unlimited calls to the US and Canada), those who are hard of hearing will be happy to know that the call quality is much clearer than any conventional phone. Since the user has the ability to turn their computer's volume up and down, this gives the user more control of the audio output.
Another advantage of GWSkype over the Skype program itself is that GWSkype uses significantly less memory. When running Skype version 5 on a Windows 7 computer, the program consumed about 45 MB of RAM at any given time. GWSkype used less than 1 MB. So for slower modern computers such as netbooks, or for older machines with less RAM, GWSkype will most likely run much more smoothly than the mainstream version of the program.

There is also the advantage of having keyboard shortcuts for most actions. Pressing enter on a contact will bring up a chat window allowing you to send that person a message. If you wish to call the person instead, you simply press control L to do so. GWSkype has integrated the keyboard shortcuts from Skype itself, so, for example, Alt + Page Down will hang up a call. Also, unlike the regular program, GWSkype allows you to enter touch tones as soon as your call goes through without having to move the screen reader to a different portion of the screen. With more recent versions of the regular Skype program, there is a limited amount of time before you can no longer enter touch tones in to your call. This does not seem to be the case with GWSkype.

Yet another advantage to using GWSkype is that the transferring of files over Skype is also done through a clear interface. If a user already knows how to send file attachments through email, using GWSkype to do so will not take much effort to learn.
With respect to calling someone, there is one draw-back to this program. Every once in a while, and also when you first start GWSkype, you will be presented with an advertisement from GWMicro encouraging you to download and install Window-Eyes. This can be quite disruptive when on a call if you use speech at all, as the advertisement can pop up when you are trying to hear what someone else is saying. It also pops up in braille, but moving the display through it quickly makes the ad go away. The only way to get the ad to not play is to run Window-Eyes.

The other draw-back to this program is that users can not yet access the video portion of the Skype service. This was not an oversight on the part of GW Micro, rather, something that Skype needs to develop to work with the platform that the GWSkype program was built on (an API interface). Skype indicates that they hope to have the video service available in the summer, and GW Micro indicated on the home page of this program that they plan to integrate this in to the GWSkype program shortly after this service becomes available.
In conclusion, for those who have stopped using Skype due to a lack of accessibility or who are looking for a much more convenient way of accessing Skype's services, this program is worth a look. It's free, accessible, and works independently from the Skype program itself. This means that one does not have to install the actual Skype program to utilize GWSkype. It's less resource intensive, and much more clean interface than Skype itself, and is quite a decent program for free. While the advertisement is an inconvenience, in my opinion, it by no means overshadows the conveniences that this program provides. I have little doubt that GW Micro will continue the development of this product once the video portion of the program is available. They have shown their responsiveness to user feedback by releasing an update to the GWSkype program just 24 hours after its initial release.

For more information about this program, or to download and install your own copy, visit its website at: http://www.gwmicro.com/apps/GWSkype

By Scott Davert

1/20/2012 | Permalink

 

CES Hall of Shame

1/17/2012

One of the reasons that the Access Technology team ensured we had a presence at the Consumer Electronic Show this year was to spread the message to other companies and organizations about the importance of access for everyone, and some of the simple steps they could take to ensure that their products could be enjoyed by the blind, as well as the sighted. We were pleasantly surprised by many organizations. Some had already seen the potential applications of their products for blind users, even if access features weren’t entirely in place yet, these organizations were excited by the place their technologies could have in the lives of blind consumers. Snapkeys intends to add features that would increase their usability by blind people, or just sighted folks who are in a position where they can’t look at their phones, and Vitallink already is working in a number of low vision enhancements, while exploring their options for adding text-to-speech functionality to their product.  Other organizations, like Savant (home automation iOS app developers), presently do not have any accessibility built into their products, but seem genuinely interested in working with us to rectify the situation.  Still others are on board with the message of access for the blind, and have been for a fairly long time.  We have long admired the work of organizations like Carnegie Mellon who have worked on ensuring access for everyone in many of their research projects and initiatives, and we hope to continue seeing exciting advancements from them and others like them.

Sadly, not everyone shared this enthusiasm for our message, and we believe that it is important to share the names of these organizations with you, our loyal readers, so that we can all help these companies to understand the importance of considering access for blind folks, and the additional benefits this access can mean for the rest of their users.  So, without further ado, we present you with the 2012 CES Access Technology Hall of Shame.

Dishonorable Mention: Nokia's Smartphones

We hesitate a little to put Nokia on the list, which is why it doesn’t receive a full inductee’s status, but instead, something of a “runner-up” or “dishonorable mention” award.  Here’s the setup:  Nokia has partnered with Code Factory to create a screen access package for their non-Windows Phone 7 based phones, or at least some of them.  Truly, this is an exciting development that we would all like to know more about, especially because Nokia is providing this screen access suite for free from their app store for compatible phones.  We were hoping to learn more about the exciting development of the Nokia Screen Reader, and which devices the application would be available for, as well as any other details we could get on the project, which is where the nomination for the Hall of Shame comes in.  Nokia was so wrapped up in the launch of their Windows Phone 7 devices (which are completely inaccessible, and do not yet even include hooks for access software to employ) that no one at the booth even knew what we were talking about.  We spoke with no fewer than three different booth workers, and to be honest, I’m not sure that they were even aware that Nokia is still selling non-Windows Mobile 7 devices, much less the state of access technology available for those devices.  The upshot of all of this is that it’s hard to trust the future of an organization’s involvement with a project if they are not even aware of its existence at a major event. This is a concern for the future of the otherwise laudable strides that Nokia has made to ensure that blind people can continue to enjoy their devices, and we hope that they can turn this around and remember the partnerships which helped to make them so invaluable to blind users as some of the first really accessible smart phones on the market. 

Universal Remote’s iOS App

Seeing exciting projects all over the CES floor, many of which contained access opportunities via iOS apps set our minds to spinning with possibilities, so we made it a point wherever possible to try the iOS apps for everything we could get our hands on at the show.  Where we found apparently accessible apps we made note, commended the creators, and hope to do some further testing so we can confidently share our discoveries with the blindness community at large.  Where we found flaws, we attempted to bring this to the attention of those manning the booths and get contact information for members of the organization who develop the apps, so that we could help them add in the accessibility components to make their products more usable and interesting to blind people.  Some organizations were interested in our feedback, and admittedly, we won’t know if they took it to heart until we see changes in their products, but at least they had the common courtesy to hear what we had to say.  Not so with our “friends” from Universal Remote.  The gentleman who condescended to speak with us, told us that we were not the first people to come to him during the show and discuss accessibility for blind users in their iOS remote app, but that it really couldn’t be a priority since they were on a deadline to get the app out the door, and perhaps, they could add it into a future release of the product.  Here’s the thing, the buttons were already navigable via VoiceOver, and they just weren’t labeled.  This is not a difficult fix to implement, and honestly, if he had chosen to talk with us as if we were equals, we could have even understood the concern of needing to get the first release out the door before enhancing the product even with such a simple fix.  However, the tone of voice and dismissive demeanor screamed louder than words ever could that this man was going to forget that we ever had visited his booth as soon as we turned away.  The apathetic contempt for our message, especially after we were not the first to express it, is painfully disheartening, and it makes for a needlessly contentious attitude from all parties in the future.  I would rather deal with a developer who is interested, but unsure of the possibilities any day over one who is so smugly certain that it just isn’t important to consider, even though they know it would be trivially easy to implement accessibility features in their products.

iHealth’s Glucose Meter

Making a glucose meter driven by an iOS app accessible is relatively painless and free,  and with that in mind we approached iHealth Labs’ booth with hope. Once we started a conversation it turned out that neither the simplicity of the fix nor the fact that a significant portion of their target demographic is losing vision made much of an impression on the iHealth Lab. Their representatives made it very clear that they were not interested in blind or low vision customers. The worst part? Their weight tracking app actually mostly works, and the iHealth glucose meter is mostly only lacking button labels. Some days it feels like the only appropriate response is to shake people. We didn’t – but we do encourage you to do what we did and speak up for access to a device that could so easily be made to work.

Invoxia’s Phone

Invoxia’s hardware really is an elegant solution – it turns any iPhone into a fully-fledged business phone with conferencing capabilities, and it lets the user group together regular phone service, Skype and any other VoIP. The phone can be docked or connected wirelessly, and the device has the option of adding other (wireless) handsets in addition to the corded phone that is included. It is a great device, and one that works well with VoiceOver…until you get to the dialing pad. There, the buttons are unlabeled. The French company which created this system (and won an Innovation Award for it) was glad to humor us and let us play with VoiceOver, but showed no interest at all in making the achingly small fix that would be needed to make this solution blind-friendly. Excuse us while we quietly boo them; and feel free to do the same.

We do understand that the Consumer Electronics Show is a big event that keeps booths very busy; but we also found that even some of the bigger companies, and most of the smaller ones, made the time and effort to at least dignify our few questions with a real response. Many found the time to identify the appropriate contacts, even at booths with waiting lines. We thank them; and wish their colleagues shared the same spirit.

Amy Mason
Clara Van Gerven

1/17/2012 | Permalink

 

Consumer Electronics Show Wrap-Up

1/13/2012

Well, friends, geeks, our attendance at CES has come to a close. As Amy and I wend our way home, we can't but spend a little of the plane time on a last report on the show. Here are some highlights from the last day:

- The iOnRoad app: This remarkable (and prize-winning) app peaked our interest. It uses a smartphone and its camera (currently Android; an iOS app is planned for April) to provide collision warnings, to detect whether the vehicle is staying within its lane, and to flag speeding. It is easy to see where this type of technology might fit into something like the Blind Driver Challenge, as it already provides audio feedback, even when the user leaves the app. The app will also read any incoming email and SMS messages, thus keeping the driver from having to check the phone. It will be interesting to see where development takes this fascinating use of a smartphone.

- Windoro: In the category of robots, an especially exciting find is the Windoro, a window-cleaning robot. For all of us who have windows that are hard to reach, or who just hate to do it, this magnetically attached (one half inside, one half outside) little guy can be remote controlled to do the job. Really, why do it yourself when you can have a robot do it? The product is not yet available in the U.S., but we heartily hope that it will be soon. If anyone wants to distribute it, let us know!

- Headphone earmuffs: Winter is just getting going, and who wouldn't want cute, fuzzy earmuffs that double as headphones? We have become infatuated with these, and were very disappointed to find that they are not for sale in the U.S. Again, if anyone would like to sell these, let us know. It would spread joy, happiness, and earmuffs.

With that little snapshot, we'll call it quits for CES 2012. We hope we've communicated some of our nerdy joy and discoveries.

Two weary geeks,
Amy Mason
Clara Van Gerven

1/13/2012 | Permalink

 

Another day in geek Valhalla

1/11/2012

If geek Valhalla can involve an inordinate amount of walking and some kosher hot dogs, then today took us there. The legs hurt now, but here is some of the loot:

Carnegie Mellon’s Quality of Life Technology Center: Part of CES’s Silver Summit, this Carnegie Mellon initiative is working on a number of exciting things, one of the more salient ones is Tiramisu, their system to crowdsource bus tracking. The system lets bus travellers record (and share with other travellers) whether a bus is on time, and how full it is. The pilot is running in Pittsburgh, and is showing some good results. The center is also doing some work on facial recognition and object tracking, and are well worth keeping an eye on.

Vitaline: Still part of the Silver Summit, this subscription service ($4.95 a month) provides a simple, high contrast, large font interface for Skype, Picasa, Google news and Email; it also works as a Facebook and Twitter reader. The concept clearly works well for seniors who want to stay in touch, but who are intimidated by the complexity of much of the technology. The company is also considering adding speech to the product, which would broaden its appeal to include seniors who have lost their vision.

Silent Call: Silent Call has been making the Vibracall device for years, letting deaf-blind users know through different vibration patterns that the phone is ringing, or the doorbell, and so forth. The prototype of the new version adds a carbon monoxide alarm, weather, and a sound alert.

Clara Van Gerven

1/11/2012 | Permalink

 

CES Day 2

1/11/2012

Hello again from toyland.. er, I mean Las Vegas.  We've wrapped up day 2 of CES and its continued to be an exciting adventure which has provided us with many new and interesting projects to pursue, and wonderful gadgets to dream of.

First on the list of gadgety fun, is the Allure thermostat.  Bit of a mixed bag to be honest, the tablet which acts as the control center for the temperature controls and does some double duty as a media viewer is not likely to be accessible to a blind consumer, but, and here's the part that's really exciting, it works with an iPhone app which appears to be quite pleasantly usable with VoiceOver.  As I only spent 5 minutes with the app in a crowded exhibit, I hesitate to say that it is fully VoiceOver accessible but, I can say that the buttons I pressed and controls I used, as well as the information the app was providing via it's interface were all readable using the iPad on display.  As an added bonus, the device is built to save you money as it changes the temperature as it notices you coming home by using location services on your iDevice, so when you leave work, you can fire up the app, and it will watch, and change the temp in your house accordingly.  Great energy saver, and wonderful chance to really have control over your thermostat.

The Slingbox is another little mainstream product with some fascinating capabilities via an iPhone app.  Sling allows a user to watch their home tv, as well as control it from a mobile device, or internet connected PC.  This is fun for watching tv on the go, or in another room of your house, but the fun doesn't end there.  Sling also appears to provide television listings, and can act as a capable, and fairly accessible remote control for running a standard DVR.  The sling controls seem to require a user to double-tap and hold  to get to much of their functionality, but its all labeled, and with the included tv listings, it is possible to do  some basic controlling of a DVR device.  Because the sling is just passing a video feed underneath its overlay, it won't tell you what the DVR says, but, a user can enter channels manually via a number pad, and do some educated guessing to move to the proper show and begin recording it.  All in all, TV on the go, and a partially accessible interface to the set top box makes Sling a very interesting thing.

Finally, for folks on the go, Polk audio had some very exciting headphones.  If you are like me, you are likely to have an earbud popped in one ear, if not both, throughout much of your day.  So, its a bit of a problem to hold conversations with the people around you.  The  Ultra Focus line of headphones are perfect for that scenario.  They come with a small in-line microphone, which can be switched on with the push of a button, and suddenly you are listening to the world around you through the headphones, instead of listening to music or other audio from your device.  It's a great concept that I've certainly never seen before and I'm glad to have experienced it.  I think it will have a number of uses to those of us who always have something to listen to, but still need to interact with the outside world.  If you are the active type, the Ultra Fit line provided headphones that seem to stay in place no matter what.  Polk warmed my geeky heart by proving this point with acrobats on skis, on a trampoline, who despite flips and leaps of ridiculous magnitude never once dislodged their headsets. 

Along with the acrobats, I also incidentally saw a life-size Elivs cut-out in a delightfully ridiculous golden costume, and I got my monkeys.  Woot Services, the cheeky closeout kings had flying monkeys.  What can I say? I love CES, the pageantry, the technology, and the possibilities.  See you tomorrow!

Amy Mason

1/11/2012 | Permalink

 

CES Day 1

1/10/2012

Ces Day 1

As a first time attendee of CES I was thrilled by a great deal. The new shiny toys, the enthusiasm for all things technology, and the dancing... everything.  In our first day on the floor, we ran across dancing cat dolls, a human sized dancing robot, and a trio of parrots strutting their stuff.  These are not the highlights of the event, but, they certainly warm a geeky heart.

In all seriousness, though, there is a lot to warm a geek's heart at CES, and there were several products today that left me rather giddy with the possibilities.  The first of these was the Snapkeys invisible  keyboard.  It is designed to answer the question shared by blind and sighted touchscreen users alike.  "How do I type with any speed on this dratted device?"  The Snapkeys answer is a four-button keyboard, which which contains the 26 letters of the alphabet, and as you type on these four buttons, the app will determine the word you want via  a system that is similar to T9 predictive text. The user can type on only a few "keys" to represent the whole alphabet, and have the system guess the desired word.  The prototype app we saw today was impressively speedy, and because this is meant to be a product that can be used "invisibly" (hidden even from their sighted users), or in situations where it would be inconvenient to look at the phone, a major planned feature is to provide feedback via text to speech.  It along with our old friends, copy and paste, could be a possible solution to the typing conundrum for a lot of folks, like me, who love their smart phones, but don't love trying to type on them.

Éton has also created a number of exciting toys for the geek in the wild, or the eco-friendly user.  They offer solar-powered home radios with nicely tactile buttons, and the ability to run for  up to eight hours from a five hour solar charge.   However, the products which were  most exciting to Clara and I, were the emergency radio/cell-phone chargers which could be charged via solar-power or  a hand crank.  These devices would allow a user in a pinch to charge up long enough to call for help, and keep up on any pertinent information via the radio until help arrives.  They would also make great accessories for a camping trip or other outdoor excursion, though the hand crank will not provide  an efficient way to power a cell phone for more than a minute or two.

Finally, the music lover in me was delighted to discover a fairly unique set of headphones.  Zagg, known for making screen protectors, cases and power solutions for iDevices and other tablets also does audio, and today, was showcasing a line of wooden over-the-ear style headphones.  These are not headphones for wandering around town, but if you want to really listen to your music from the comfort of home, they sounded very good, and were really rather appealing to the touch and in appearance.  Zagg claimed that wood is used because it makes for beautiful and rich musical reproduction, and they did really sound quite nice, but for me, the styling was equally exciting.  They are a lot of fun, and a very unique way to enjoy the music in your life.

All in all, I am exhausted, but thrilled by the chance to visit CES and tomorrow will join Clara once again in giving you snapshots from the show floor, where I hope to add to the list of fabulous toys, tools, and dancing creatures spotted on this tech safari.  Is it wrong to hope for monkeys?  

Amy Mason

1/10/2012 | Permalink

 

CES – first reports from floor

1/10/2012

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is always an adventure, and this year it looks like one which will involve a LOT of new phones and new tablets. Given that our focus is not necessarily the same as everybody else’s, here are some of the highlights of the first day of exploring:

Emporia: This Austrian company is bringing some much needed products to the U.S. market. They produce simple, rugged phones for first-time cell phone users, typically seniors and children. That in itself is not all that unusual – the Jitterbug and Snapfon phones already provide much of that functionality. Big buttons, simple use and large displays are becoming more common. Where Emporia is different is in their overall approach – they aim for the broadest possible access to their devices. In practice, this means that some of their phones have first and second level speech navigation, with plans for more comprehensive speech. The company also plans to add some more advanced functions, such as simple navigation, to their phones. With this implemented, the user could have some of the snazzier features of something like Siri on the iPhone, without having to navigate a complex interface – all that would be needed is saying “take me home.”

No carrier has been established for the phone, but the U.S. release is expected in May, and if full speech access happens anytime soon, these phones will be a very welcome addition to a market short on simple but fully accessible phones.

Makerbot: The Access Technology monkeys are always filled with joy by Makerbot. Their affordable 3D printers (about $1750 for the Replicator) are open source and produce remarkably detailed models for the money. For anybody looking to do great tactile models on a budget, and who can design in 3D, Makerbot is a real ally.

Techko Maid: Techko was showing their automated mop and their vacuum. Both had simple, easy to label tactile controls with sound feedback – and who wouldn’t want their vacuuming done by someone (or something) else?

Clara Van Gerven

1/10/2012 | Permalink

 

JAWS 13

1/6/2012

After letting the dust settle, and now that Freedom Scientific has released two updates to the latest release of JAWS, it seemed a reasonable time to give a quick overview of what the new version has to offer blind users.

OCR

Freedom Scientific has implemented an Optical Character Recognition system in JAWS 13 that will recognize the text of controls and documents that are otherwise inaccessible. Using the layered keystroke model, introduced a couple versions back, INSERT+SPACE followed by O will activate OCR. You can then choose to OCR the current window (W), current control (C), or entire screen (S). When the OCR has completed, you will have the JAWS cursor activated and be able to move through the recognized text. Using the mouse emulation commands will correctly perform a right or left click.

This should not be used as the only access solution for inaccessible PDFs, but it does work well enough to get an initial impression of the document’s contents. One other caveat I have found, if you use Windows Media Center (WMC) and try to OCR a DVD menu, or one of the text-only screens, OCR will fail if you are in full screen mode. I assume this has to do with how the full screen overlay is sent to the display. Pressing ALT+ENTER will put the WMC into windowed mode and you can then OCR the contents.

 

Table Navigation

In the context of layered keystrokes, it is now possible to enter a table navigation mode where your arrow keys will move you among table cells instead of within their contents. This mode essentially “locks” the table modifiers CTRL+ALT. Once active, table commands are locked until you press a key that is not used for table navigation (such as SPACE). Additional navigation includes commands for going to the beginning and end of a row or column. I find this mode helpful when I want to quickly move through data tables and often times it is more convenient to not use three fingers to do so.

 

 

Improved Access to Top Windows

If you’ve ever experienced the scenario where you know there is a program window on screen, but you can’t find it in the ALT+TAB order, you can breathe a little easier. JAWS 13 will now locate these windows, often found in antivirus and other security programs, through the INSERT+F10 dialog and allow focus to be moved to them. In the dialog’s listbox, these windows are indicated with a parenthetical notation that they are a “top” window.

 

 

Outlook Command to Open HTML Messages in the Browser

Outlook 2007 and 2010 present a challenge to blind users when reading HTML messages. Often, these messages appear to be constructed of nested tables and navigating them in Outlook is cumbersome at best. The solution has always been to use the Outlook “open in browser” command and read the message in Internet Explorer. Until now, that command was difficult to locate, or, if you placed its icon on the quick access toolbar, required two keystrokes to activate. Now, simply hold the JAWS key and SHIFT+W to accomplish this task.

 

Many other additional enhancements have been added to JAWS, including better support for Microsoft Word, but these are my top highlights.

Tony Olivero

1/6/2012 | Permalink

 

Mobile PC Monitor

12/16/2011

If you’re anything like me you’ve occasionally, and in some cases more often than you want to acknowledge, been staring at a completely useless computer. Your screen access package has frozen or another program has caused it to completely hang, and your only recourse is to hard crash and restart your system.

Nay, think again my padawan. Enter our Hero Mobile PC Monitor on his landspeeder, waving his saber of sanity and salvation. This app, available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, and your local web browser, allows you to see statistics of up to three computers for free (more available for a price). The program will display data including CPU usage, available RAM, and temperatures of the CPU and hard drives. Where PC Monitor really shines, at least for blind users, is its ability to remotely kill running processes. I have, on at least three occasions in the past week, used it to shut down a frozen JAWS process and restart it from the computer’s keyboard, saving me a complete restart.

The only version I have tested is the iOS app so cannot speak to the accessibility of other platforms. The iOS app appeared to be completely Voiceover accessible. Hat tip to the Applevis directory where I discovered the app.

Tony Olivero

12/16/2011 | Permalink

 

The DAISY Consortium Announces the Latest Release of the Save as DAISY for Office 2010 add-in

12/15/2011

Zurich, Switzerland and Missoula, MT, USA - December 15, 2011 - Building on DAISY Consortium’s collaboration with Microsoft, Save as DAISY for Office 2010 helps Microsoft Word users convert Word Open XML files to the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) format.  This version supports Office 2003, 2007 and 2010. 

“We want to provide people with print disabilities equal access to the same information,” says George Kerscher, Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium. “The blind person needs a mechanism to navigate the page as quickly as a sighted person.”

With the validation tools incorporated into Save as DAISY for Office 2010, users can convert a well-structured Word file into a DAISY file set that automatically conforms to DAISY standards.   DAISY files aid readers with print disabilities, as the text in DAISY XML is synchronized with synthetic-speech audio MP3 files that are generated by a speech application programming interface available in the Windows operating system.

Save as DAISY for Office 2010 incorporates a "Lite" version of the DAISY Pipeline.  Users can select to generate the DAISY XML for further processing, or they can generate a fully conforming DAISY file set with full navigation and full text synchronized with audio. The audio is generated by the default text-to-speech (TTS) engine on users’ Windows computer.  The DAISY Pipeline maintenance release accompanies the current Save as DAISY add-in release.
Save as DAISY add-in is a tool that document creators can use to easily convert their documents into multimedia publications for people who are blind or have a print disability.  The add-in is available at no cost to users, helping to meet the DAISY Consortium’s commitment to provide equal access to information for all members of society.
“Our work with the DAISY Consortium and Save as DAISY for Office 2010 are key elements of Microsoft’s ongoing investment in accessibility” said Rob Sinclair, chief accessibility officer, Microsoft.  “Talking documents open up a world of words for people with print disabilities at home, work and in the classroom.”
E-Learning Consultant Norm Coombs (EASI) shared: "In 1972 I published a history book, "Black Experience in America".  I wrote it on a typewriter, and being blind, made lots of typos. I had it edited and exchanged emails with the editor till she was happy with the manuscript.  But, being in print, I couldn't read it myself!

In the late 1980s, I used a scanner and got an electronic version as a plain text file.  But 200 pages with no chapters or headers was long and tedious. Eventually, I gave it away to Project Gutenberg which eventually had someone put out a Web version including some chapters and headers.
With the arrival of the Save as DAISY add-in for Word, I had an inspiration. I used the 'cut and save' feature in Internet Explorer and pasted it into Word, now I had a document with paragraphs, headers, and chapters providing basic navigation. The add-in let me save a DAISY version which I now have on my pocket-sized DAISY reader. The document may not be 'publisher perfect', but I now can read my book in a format with chapters, headers and the ability to both skim and move around as easily as if it were a print book!"
By being able to navigate content in the same way a sighted reader can, people with print disabilities can consume information at the same speed as other people, making them more competitive in school and in business.

The DAISY Consortium embraces the principles of global collaboration and transparency which define open standards development. Collaboration results in open international standards, and accessible digital content and reading systems which meet the needs of readers with a print disability, while providing a rich user experience for all.

 

12/15/2011 | Permalink

 

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