September 2014 was a busy month for Apple, at least on the mobile front. On September 9 the company announced two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. They also unveiled their long-anticipated AppleWatch. The watch–at the time of this writing its accessibility or lack thereof has not yet been definitively established–will not be available until sometime in early 2015. The two new iPhone models were released on September 19, two days after the public release on September 17 of the new iPhone operating system, iOS 8.
It’s a lot to keep up with, so in this article I will introduce you to the new accessibility features and improvements you will experience when you upgrade to iOS 8, and help you decide if there should be a new iPhone 6 or 6 Plus in your immediate future.
iOS Without the Eye
Apple’s iOS 8 was made available to developers in beta form several months back. Jonathan Mosen, author of the excellent eBook, iOS 7 Without the Eye, took advantage of this head start to write and release a complete new edition, iOS 8 Without the Eye. If you are brand new to the world of iOS accessibility, I would not recommend this book as your first iOS tutorial, as it assumes you already have a reasonable proficiency in using VoiceOver, Zoom, and other iOS accessibility features. Novice iOS users would likely be better served by purchasing Shelly Brisbin’s iOS Access for All: Your Comprehensive Guide to Accessibility for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, which I reviewed in the July 2014 issue of AccessWorld.
That being said, Mosen’s iOS 8 Without the Eye is an exceptional guide for upgraders who want to preview and learn how to use the various changes you will encounter when moving from iOS 7 to iOS 8. The ebook is available from Mosen Consulting for $19.95. After reading this book from e-cover to e-cover I felt more than prepared to upgrade my iPhone 5 from iOS 7 to iOS 8, then, two days later, set up and use my new iPhone 6.
The iOS 8 changes and new functionality of interest to users with visual impairments fall basically into two categories: new mainstream features and functionality, and changes and improvements to VoiceOver and other iOS accessibility features. We’ll describe a sampling of the major changes below, but first, let’s take a look at the new hardware.
The New iPhones
The screens on the iPhone 5, 5s, and 5c were larger than the screens on the iPhone 4 and 4S. The iPhone 6 screens are even larger–4.7 inches measured diagonally for the iPhone 6 and 5.5 inches for the 6 Plus. The phones themselves are longer and wider than previous models. The phones are also thinner–so much so, the camera’s sapphire lens cover protrudes a millimeter or so from the iPhone’s rear edge. Because of this, it is possible to rock the iPhone just a bit from side to side, but I suspect even a thin case will re-level the phone and make things flush.
Along with the size, the two biggest changes to this latest generation are in the placement of the screen lock button–it is now on the right edge, almost exactly opposite from the volume buttons, the same as most Android and Windows phones–and the iPhone’s rounded edges and corners. The rounded edges give the iPhone 6 a sleek feel and make it seem even thinner than it is. I found it more comfortable to hold my iPhone 6 for an extended period of time. The screen lock button was a different situation. Gripping the phone in one hand, when I would reach for the volume buttons I had a tendency to grip the phone tighter, and frequently I would wind up accidentally pressing the screen lock button.
You can read the complete specifications at the Apple iPhone 6 site but if you plan to upgrade there are only a few choices you will need to make.
- Color: The new iPhones are available in silver, gold, and space gray.
- Memory: The 32GB option is gone. These newest models are available in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB.
- Size: the iPhone 6 Plus is noticeably larger than the standard 6. If you are a low vision user, you will almost surely appreciate the extra screen real estate. The optical image stabilization available exclusively on the 6 Plus camera may also help you become a better photographer. In the future it may enhance your ability to use a scanning app like the new KNFB Reader, but to my knowledge neither this nor any other scanning apps have been optimized to take advantage of this feature yet.
If you’re like me, you often grip your iPhone and manipulate the screen with one hand, checking e-mail, composing texts, etc. This ability is especially handy when on the move, leaving one hand free to use your cane or grip your dog’s harness. The larger screens of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus may give you pause in this regard. Happily, Apple has come up with a solution. It’s called “reachability,” and invoking this feature causes the screen to shrink and slide down toward the bottom, where all of the active app’s controls are within easy reach.
To invoke reachability, double-touch the Home button (use only a light touch, not a tap). You’ll hear a sort of whoosh sound as the screen shrinks and slides down. Unfortunately, at least for me, there are two problems using this feature with VoiceOver. First, I find it difficult to perform the double-touch gesture with the same hand I am using to hold the iPhone. More importantly, after about 10 seconds with no activity the screen reverts to full size, and iOS 8 does not consider the VoiceOver swiping gestures as activity. So by the time I have swiped down to the control I wish to activate or the e-mail I wish to open the screen has reverted to full size. Hopefully this issue will be addressed in an upcoming maintenance release.
Hello from Alex
Whether your plans include an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, I would strongly recommend avoiding the 16GB model in favor of either a 64GB or 128GB model. Otherwise you may not be able to enjoy perhaps the most anticipated iOS 8 upgrade: the inclusion of the Alex text-to-speech engine. This extremely high-quality voice will take a full 869 megabytes of storage. The good news is that iOS Alex is the same Alex voice many of us have come to enjoy on the Mac. The bad news is that he is only available on iDevices with 64-bit A7 or A8 processors, including the iPhone 5s, the iPad Air or newer, the iPad Mini with Retina Display or newer, and the two new iPhone models.
I installed the Alex voice and found it quite understandable, even at high speeds. However, I found the lower pitch of this voice a bit difficult to understand in loud environments, such as a bus stop, and preferred, at such times, to revert to the Samantha voice, or my personal favorite, the compact version of Australian Karen.
Other Accessibility Improvements and New Features
Let’s take a brief look at some of the other new and improved accessibility features, which are available for all iOS users.
Improvements to Maps
Apple has made some much-needed updates to Maps using accessibility. You will now find a “Tracking” toggle near the bottom of the screen. Enable the “Tracking with Headings” feature and Maps will begin announcing your compass heading, upcoming intersections and cross street names, and points of interest.
There is no fine-grain control for how far from an intersection Maps should speak up, and the points of interest list is nowhere near as comprehensive as the POI database used by BlindSquare, which I reviewed in the July 2014 issue of AccessWorld.
Inexplicably, the Maps app does not voice when the phone is locked. Nor does it announce when a road is a full cross street and when it only turns left or right off your current location.
While taking Maps for a walk, whenever I reached a “T” or “L” intersection where the road I was traveling on terminated, Maps announced that I was approaching the next road over, despite the fact that I could not reach it directly from my current location. The Maps Tracking feature is a good start, but it does need considerable refinement.
The iOS built-in screen magnifier can now enlarge the screen up to 15 times. There is also a toggle to do this without changing the size of the onscreen keyboard. Additionally, you can choose to Zoom full screen or in Lens Mode, a smaller region you can set to move as focus changes.
There is also a new option in the iPhone’s Display and Screen Brightness settings. “Zoom View” enables you to toggle the size of home screen icons from standard to larger, or “zoom,” sized. This feature may be of particular use to high partials who need just a bit of magnification.
You can now set your iPhone screen to display in shades of gray instead of colors, and invert the shades, which may improve readability for many.
Previous versions of iOS allowed you to have highlighted text read aloud. You can now instruct your phone to read the entire screen, even with VoiceOver turned off, using a two-finger slide-down gesture. This feature will be especially handy to Zoom users who are faced with a large text passage to read. You can enable this feature from the Accessibility/Speech menu.
QuickNav and Braille Displays
It is now possible to use the same QuickNav Safari commands such as next heading, previous link, etc., that Bluetooth keyboard users enjoy with your braille display’s input keys, although some users have reported this feature is a bit buggy at the time of this writing.
With iOS 8 you can add a brand new option to your rotor settings: a built-in onscreen braille keyboard. This keyboard allows you to type directly into app text edit fields, so you no longer need to jump through hoops to get your text from a braille keyboard app into your e-mail, text message, or other apps.
Enable the keyboard in the General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/Braille settings page, where you can choose between uncontracted six-dot braille, uncontracted eight-dot braille, and contracted braille. Because of screen size, eight-dot Braille is only supported on the iPad. iPhones and iPod touches are limited to six-dot Braille.
Place the braille keyboard in your rotor, and when you invoke it in an edit field the keyboard will auto-detect your device’s position and work in either tabletop or Screen Away mode. You will receive the audio prompt: “To calibrate the dot positions, touch and lift the three right fingers, then touch and lift the three left fingers immediately afterwards.” Uncertain of the dot positions? Touch and hold a finger to the screen at any time until you hear two beeps, then “Entering Explore mode.” Slide your finger across the screen to locate the position of the various dots, then lift your finger to close Explore mode.
Direct Touch Typing
If you are a very fast and accurate touch screen typist, you may appreciate Direct Touch typing. Instead of waiting until you raise your finger off the keyboard character to announce and enter it, Direct Touch typing types the character as soon as you tap it. In his book, Mosen describes how he uses this feature with great success on his iPad equipped with a tactile screen protector. If you experiment with this feature, plan to rely on auto-correct even more than usual, at least until you get the hang of things.
You’ve probably noticed that if you are playing music or a video and VoiceOver has something to say, your media’s volume will lower slightly until VoiceOver has finished speaking. This is called Audio Ducking. With previous iOS versions this feature has been on by default, but you can now choose whether or not you wish to have Audio Ducking enabled.
You can also add Audio Ducking to your rotor to toggle this setting on the fly.
Mainstream iOS 8 Upgrades and Improvements
The latest iOS includes a significant number of upgrades and new features. There are far too many to cover them all here, so I will concentrate on a quartet of new features that will be of particular interest to sight-impaired users.
Apple is finally allowing users to install third-party keyboards, a feature Android has had from the beginning. If you are a Fleksi user, you will no longer have to rely on cut-and-paste to move your text into e-mails, messages, or other text entry fields. The only exceptions to this are for dial pad type entry fields, and for password fields, at which time for security reasons the standard iOS keyboard will reappear.
Fleksi already works as a third party keyboard, although at the time of this writing VoiceOver support is incomplete and developers suggest disabling VoiceOver while using the Fleksi keyboard.
The developers of Text Expander have already announced an upcoming third-party keyboard. Myself, I am looking forward to a keyboard that includes a number row at the top, and the many creative and useful alternative keyboards VoiceOver-focused developers will come up with.
iOS 8 includes a new app called Health. Currently, with my iPhone 6, I can instruct this app to count my steps and flights of stairs climbed for each day and compare that to my average. Great–now I have to carry my iPhone everywhere so I can get credit for every move I make.
What’s more exciting about the iOS HealthKit is that it is a framework for iOS-connected health monitoring devices, such as the upcoming AppleWatch. Bluetooth scales, workout monitors, treadmills, and other fitness accessories can link to the Health app to give the user a one-stop view. We can also look forward to a whole new generation of connected devices, such as on-the-go glucose and blood pressure monitors. I don’t imagine it will be long before these sensors are both collecting this data and forwarding it to your physician so he can fine tune your treatment on an ongoing basis.
One Health app feature that can be used right now is the Medical ID. Create a list of any allergies and other medical conditions and it can be made available on your lock screen’s emergency control.
The iOS HomeKit is not an app, it’s a framework that will enable home automation devices to work and play together better. Which means we may be one step closer to an accessible washing machine, dishwasher, and other home appliances.
Apple has announced plans to offer a certification program for HomeKit to ensure developers comply with the framework’s standards. Please, Apple, include VoiceOver compatibility in this certification process.
Apple just may be in the process of revolutionizing the way we spend our money–and I mean besides shelling it all out for new Apple devices. Both iPhone 6 models include near field communication technology (NFC) and with Apple Pay you will soon be able to keep your credit and debit cards in your pocket and use your iPhone 6 or 6 Plus to securely buy a hamburger, fill a prescription, or pay for a cab or other ride share.
Android has incorporated NFC capabilities from the very beginning, and they have tried and failed to make Google Wallet a payment standard. I think Apple has an excellent chance for success, however, and I offer these three reasons:
- Apple already has the largest database of credit and debit card information anywhere thanks to iTunes and the Mac and iOS App Stores.
- Apple’s payment model is inherently more secure, since the merchant only receives a one-time-use number. No one but you has access to your card information.
- Apple has timed their payment introduction well. The US is about to move to “Chip and PIN” credit and debit card technology, which means millions of merchants are going to have to upgrade their payment processing systems anyway. The cost of adding Apple Pay compatibility is practically nil.
I am looking forward to paying for my purchases with a tap of my iPhone’s fingerprint reader and a quick touch of the back of my iPhone to the point of sale payment system. Imagine, no more fumbling to sign a credit card slip, giving your PIN to strangers because the card reader’s key pad is inaccessible, and not knowing for sure until you consult your bank whether you were actually charged the amount you were told. I wonder if bank apps will begin to include Apple Pay touch ATM withdrawals.
Apple Pay is supposed to launch sometime this fall. New third-party keyboards are already appearing in the App Store, and I expect the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) next January to be crowded with new devices that take advantage of HomeKit and HealthKit.
My Experience so Far
I already own an iPad Mini, and the larger 6 Plus seemed a bit much to carry around in my pocket, especially since I do not use Zoom and so would gain little from the expanded screen size. So I upgraded to the standard iPhone 6 with 64gig of memory.
I also installed iOS 8 on my trusty but now antiquated iPhone 5.
Overall, I find the iPhone 6 a much snappier device than my 5. I am also enjoying many of the new mainstream iOS features, including the ability to send a quick audio message, making and receiving phone calls from my Mac with the Yosemite beta, and other new iOS features I do not have space to describe here, but which are covered thoroughly in Mosen’s excellent and well-timed eBook. As for VoiceOver, which I use exclusively, I think Apple has taken some giant steps forward, but a few tiny steps backward, at least in this initial .0 release. Here are a few of the problems I have experienced.
- Loss of focus: When swiping to a control or edit box, focus does not always move appropriately. If it’s not on your current screen, VoiceOver cannot find it. When I tried purchasing a new iPhone case from Amazon, for example, I could not swipe to the “Complete Purchase” control. I had to three-finger swipe-up to move to the second screen, then explore by touch until I located the control, at which time a double-tap activated it.
- Shifting focus: Often I will tap on my e-mail icon, which is on my Dock, and after my single-tap to highlight the icon and just before my double-tap to start the app, VO will announce the name of a different app on my home screen, causing me to inadvertently open the wrong app.
- Loss of control: There are certain edit boxes that refuse to allow me to enter characters until I have stopped and restarted VoiceOver. The search books edit field on the BARD Mobile app is particularly bad. From time to time I am also unable to open a particular contact to compose and send a text message until I have restarted my iPhone.
- Unwanted screen refreshes: The iOS screen tends to refresh automatically and for no apparent reason. A Netflix video is often interrupted by a “Content refreshing” message, and midway through reading a long Seeking Alpha article the screen will auto-refresh and I will be tossed back to the very beginning.
- Notifications not voicing: Notifications are often cut off mid-syllable, or not spoken at all.
I do believe that most of these problems are due to time constraints. Apple was determined to meet their customary September iPhone refresh, and they spent their limited developer resources fixing major issues, and leaving minor ones to subsequent updates. Nonetheless, if you have or do plan to upgrade to iOS 8, I encourage you to report bugs to Apple by sending an e-mail describing your issue. Apple is debugging issues in order of severity and number of people affected. One of the ways the company determines how many users are affected by a specific bug is by logging the number of people who report experiencing them. The more people who report VoiceOver and other accessibility issues, the higher these issues will rise on their “must fix” list.
If you are a novice iOS user, you may wish to wait for an interim patch release which hopefully will address many if not all of these issues. For more advanced users, I have no hesitation in advising you to go ahead and take the plunge. I can say definitely that iOS 8 is a major upgrade with a host of new and exciting features, and the few accessibility issues you may encounter are more than worth the few minor glitches.