4th Gen Apple TV is Now Accessible with Switch Control

At launch, the 4th generation Apple TV lacked support for the iOS Remote app. The only way to navigate the interface and enter passwords and other information was through the use of the new Siri remote. An unintended consequence from the lack of support for the Remote app was that Switch Control users were for the most part locked out from using the device. Yes, you can do quite a bit with Siri on the new Apple TV using only your voice, but Siri doesn’t work for everyone (it does not always recognize the voice commands if the person using the remote has a speech difficulty or strong accent, and it can’t be used to enter passwords).

Fortunately, this limitation was addressed with the latest update for the 4th Generation Apple TV (tvOS 9.1). Now it is possible to use the Remote app on an iOS device to control the Apple TV (you must turn on Home Sharing and be on the same Wifi network for this to work). Since the Remote app is optimized to work with Switch Control, this means that switch users can now control the Apple TV just like any other user. In Item Mode, Switch Control will recognize hotspots in the touch area located in the middle of the Remote app interface. By selecting these hotspots the switch user can navigate in any direction and launch apps or interact with any of the controls on the Apple TV.

Screenshot of iOS Remote app interface showing a hotspot for moving the focus on Apple TV.

The addition of Remote app support is not only a great convenience for all users of the Apple TV. It addresses a major omission in the otherwise excellent support for accessibility on the new Apple TV, which I have covered in a number of recent posts.

Media and Interface Options on 4th Generation Apple TV

As I finish out this series of tutorials on the 4th Generation Apple TV, I want to focus on the options for customizing the playback of media and the appearance of the interface. As shown in the video, the captions and subtitles feature makes great use of the Siri remote capabilities on the 4th Generation Apple TV: you can either enable the captions for the rest of the program (“Turn on closed captions”), or you can enable them for a short time if you have missed something  (just say “What did he/she say?” and after the video rewinds a few seconds the captions will come on for a short time to help you catch what you missed).

Of course this feature will only work if the content creator(s) have made the captions available. Ted Talks is one channel that does, making the great presentations on their channel accessible to a wider audience (yay for Ted Talks!).

Apple TV also supports audio descriptions. Audio descriptions provide a description of the action in a video for those who are unable to see. The audio descriptions can be enabled in the same Media section of the Accessibility Settings where Captions and Subtitles are found. As with captions, these audio descriptions will only work if the content creator has made them available.

In addition to the ways in which viewers can customize media playback, the Apple TV watchOS includes a number of options for customizing the interface: bold text, reduce motion,  reduce transparency and focus style, which adds an outline around the currently selected item.

Zoom on 4th Generation Apple TV (Video)

Zoom on the Apple TV provides up to 15X magnification for those who have low vision, but it can benefit anyone who has difficulty seeing the Apple TV interface on their TV.  This accessibility feature should be familiar to low vision users of other Apple products. It has been available for some time on the Mac and on iOS devices, and it is also supported on the Apple Watch. With the release of the 4th Generation  Apple TV, every Apple product that supports a display now also supports magnification for low vision users.

This video provides an overview of the Zoom accessibility feature. You will learn how to enable/disable Zoom in Settings, how to add Zoom to the Accessibility Shortcut for quick access, and some of the gestures supported by Zoom:

  • a light tap near any edge on the Siri remote will move the zoomed in area by one screen
  • dragging on the touch area of the Siri remote will allow you to pan in any direction (a two finger tap will stop/resume panning).
  • double-tapping and holding with two fingers, then dragging up/down without letting go will allow you to adjust the zoom level.

A nice feature built into Zoom is that you can double-tap the Siri remote at any time to hear the currently selected item read aloud. This works even if you are not currently zoomed in (Zoom just has to be enabled).

Overview of VoiceOver on 4th Generation Apple TV (Video)

VoiceOver was already available on  older Apple TV models, but the touchpad on the new Siri remote allows it to be an even more robust accessibility solution on the new 4th generation model. This video provides an overview of the various gestures VoiceOver supports on the new Apple TV, including the Rotor gesture that can be used to change VoiceOver settings such as the speech rate.

 

 

 

Mirroring Apple TV to a Mac

In addition to the HDMI connection for displaying content on a TV, the new Apple TV also includes a new USB-C connection.

USB-C port on back of Apple TV

While this connection is meant for diagnostics purposes, it can also be used to send the output from Apple TV to a Mac in order to take screenshots and record instructional videos. The key is to have the right USB-C cable to ensure that you do not damage  the USB ports on your computer. According to Google engineer Benson Leung (from the Pixel team) many of the less expensive cables do not meet the USB-C standard. As a result, they might not be wired properly and can actually damage the USB port on your computer. Leung has reviewed a number of compliant cables on Amazon. After reading his reviews, I chose to go with the i-Orange-E 6.6 ft. cable.

Once you have your Apple Tv connected to your Mac with the USB-C cable, the steps for recording a video are pretty simple:

  1. Launch QuickTime Player.
  2. Choose File > New Movie Recording.
  3. Select Apple TV for the Camera source from the pulldown menu next to the record button.
    Apple TV selected for Camera source in QuickTime Player
  4. Choose Apple TV as the Microphone source to also record the audio from the Apple TV, and select a quality (High or Maximum).
  5. Click the Record button and start interacting with the Apple TV using the new Siri remote.
  6. Click the Record button one more time to finish your recording.
  7. Choose File > Save and select the desired location to save your recording on your computer.

While you are seeing the output from the Apple TV in QuickTime Player, you can take screenshots using any of the Mac shortcuts for doing so: my favorite is Command + Shift + 4 followed by the Space Bar. This will change the mouse pointer to a Camera icon so that when I click on the QuickTime Player window a screenshot of the Apple TV output is saved to my Desktop.

If you are a Screenflow user, that app will also show the Apple TV as a source in the Configure Recording window (under the “Record Screen from” option).
Apple TV selected as source in Screenflow Configure Recording window.
In my testing, this also recorded some of the sound effects from Apple TV (such as the sound made when exiting to the Home screen, but not the click sounds made when navigating the app grid or the menu items in Settings).

Have fun recording your epic Crossy Road battles…I mean instructional videos.

Update: Today I attempted to record a tutorial focusing on VoiceOver, which is the screen reader built into tvOS. In order for the audio output from VoiceOver to be recorded by Screenflow, I had to select the option for “Record Computer Audio” in the Configure Recording window. This worked well, the only problem is that (as with QuickTime) you are not able to hear the sound from the Apple TV while recording. If you are recording a tutorial that relies on sound (like the one I did on VoiceOver) you may have to practice it a few times to make sure you are not speaking over the audio output from the Apple TV.

10 Apple TV Apps for the Classroom

The Apple TV is already popular in schools that have adopted the iPad as a learning tool. Its support for AirPlay makes it possible for teachers to show apps on their iPads to the entire class, and it allows learners to show their work to their peers right from their seat. The release of the fourth generation device with access to an App Store promises to expand the possibilities for Apple TV in the classroom.

App Store on Apple TV

While at launch the app selection is limited, if the iOS and Mac app stores are any indication, this situation will quickly change. For now, the primary challenge is finding apps. Discovery would be greatly enhanced by an option to browse the store by categories, including one devoted specifically to education (as I was writing this, Apple a new Categories section showed up on my Apple TV so it looks like this issue should be improved soon). For now, we have to wade through the many fireplace apps. Another issue is that it is not possible to easily share apps since there is no version of Safari for the Apple TV. Thus, I can only provide a list with some brief descriptions and my experience with each app, but no links to help you quickly add the apps to your device.

A quick tip: make sure to look under Purchased when you go into the App Store on your Apple TV. It turns out that some apps are universal. This means the developer can create one version that is available on both iOS and Apple TV (the device is running a version of iOS after all). I was able to find and quickly install a couple of apps this way.

Another quick tip: Make sure you have your iOS device or computer nearby as you navigate the App Store and install apps. As an alternative to entering your login information on the Apple TV, some apps will ask you to go to a special web page on another device, where you enter a code displayed on the Apple TV.

Remember that with many of the video apps, you can use Siri to turn on the captions. Just say “turn on the captions.” You can also just flick down with one finger to display an overlay with additional information about the current program and options for captions and subtitles (as well as AirPlay).

Overlay with access to captions and subtitles for current video program.

In Settings, the captions can be customized to make them easier for all in the classroom to follow along with them.  Captions are usually available for content from TED and PBS, whereas it varies on YouTube (most of the content there still relies on automatic captions which are not always accurate, unfortunately).

Without further delay, here is my list of my most useful apps so far:

  1. YouTube: My first source for learning about a new topic. If you used this app on the old Apple TV, you will not see much of a difference with this version. Once you complete the login process, which requires you to enter a code on another device as per quick tip 2 above, you will see your subscriptions, watch history and the like.
  2. TED: Again, there is not much difference between this offering and the other TED apps. As with YouTube, you will need to log in on a different device and enter a code in order to save talks that you want to watch later.
  3. PBS Video: With access to a deep library of PBS video content from shows such as Nature, Frontline, NOVA and more, the PBS Video app can be helpful in a variety of subjects, from social studies and science to language arts.
  4. PBS Kids: The Kids app features popular shows such as Sesame Street, Curious George, Arthur and more.
  5. Coursera: This app provides access to the videos that make up most of the content for courses offered on the Coursera platform. You are not able to display the PDF documents and other resources. Even with that limitation, I have been able to find a couple of good courses that look like they will be interesting: Design Thinking from UVA and Ignite Your Every Day Creativity from SUNY). For most of these courses, you can watch for free or choose to get credit by paying a fee. I did not go through the process of enrolling for credit with the courses I am exploring, so I can’t speak to how that works.
  6.  Storehouse: This is one of my favorite story telling apps on iOS, but the Apple TV version is quite limited in my opinion. It only allows you to show the photos you have added to a story, not the quotes or captions. Even so, students can use it to create short five-frame stories that use imagery to convery a message or tell a story in a different way.
  7. Montessory Spelling: As the name implies, this app allows young leanrers to practice their spelling. After being shown a photo that represents the word and hearing it spoken aloud, the learner sees blank lines representing the number of letters needed. Using the Apple TV remote, the learner then selects the letters in the correct order to get auditory feedback (the word is repeated and stars are shown on the screen). The Settings include options for selecting the level of difficulty, the letter placement (right space or next space) and the keyboard (capital letters, script or cursive). English, spanish, french and italian are the supported languages. Not a complicated or highly interactive app, but then again few of the learning apps I have seen so far on the new Apple TV are.
  8. Dictionary: This is one of those things that should just be built into Siri, but it’s not, so there’s an app for that. The one thing I like is the display of photos from Flickr with each definition. That can definitely help some learners who prefer or need visuals for understanding. There is a word of the day feature, but each time I tried it I got booted to the Home Screen. Unfortunately, the text is very small even on a reaonsably sized TV, and there are no options to increase it within the app.
  9. MyTalk Tools: For those of you who work with students with communication difficulties (or parents of kids who have such difficulties) there is at least one Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app on the Apple TV app store. I am still not sure how helpful this kind of app will be on this platform but hey, it’s available as an option. Maybe it will allow for quick communication while a child is watching a program or interacting with an app on the Apple TV (by double-tapping the Home button to switch back and forth between the AAC app and the other content or app). MyTalk is a $99 app for iOS (though a lite version is available if you want to try it as I did). It is on the iOS device that you will configure the communication boards available on the Apple TV after syncing through a MyTalk account. For each cell in the communication board, you can record your own voice and change the photo to either one you have saved to the Camera Roll or one you take with the camera of your iOS device. It looks like the free version will only allow you to replace existing cells, not create new ones.
  10. White Noise: I didn’t really go out looking for this app. It was shown to me when I looked in my Purchased category in the App Store (because I already own it on iOS and it is a universal app). I’m thinking this would be a good app to help learners simmer down and focus if they get too rowdy. It plays soothing sounds from ocean waves, to forest sounds, to rain drops and more. Since the app will continue playing in the background even after you exit it, you can combine it with the amazing screen savers Apple has provided for the ultimate chill out experience.

You will notice I have not included any math apps. Overall, I was not too pleased with the three I tried (each was only $.99): Math Champions, Math for Kids, and Math Drills. Each of these has some drills limited to basic operations. Beyond selecting the correct answer from a list and getting the typical auditory feedback (“Correct!”) there was not much in the way of interactivty or an immersive game experience. This is an area where I hope a few developers will look to creating something that is unique to the platform and incorporates more engaging gamification elements (a story, a mission, etc.). I did find some calculator and unit conversion apps, but again I feel this is something that should be easy for Siri to perform rather than require a separate app (in fact, it can already do all this on iOS devices).

That’s it for my initial tour of the Apple TV App Store after just a couple of days of owning the device. Have you found some useful apps I have left off the list? Let me know in the comments or tweet them at me (@_luisfperez).

4th Generation Apple TV Accessibility Overview

I was already happy with my third-generation Apple TV, but when I read that Apple was expanding the support for accessibility in the fourth generation model I knew I was going to pre-order the device as soon as it became available. Today, my 4th-generation Apple TV finally arrived, and it does not disappoint with regard to its accessibility. This post is not an in-depth review of the new Apple TV (there are plenty of those online already including a really nice one from iMore), but rather my first impressions of the set top box as someone with a visual impairment and a personal interest in accessibility. I will also just focus on the built-in features of the new Apple TV, rather than the apps that can now be installed on the device (that will make for a separate post as I explore the App Store further in the next few weeks and even more apps become available).

Siri remote for 4th generation Apple TV
The new Siri remote.

In Summary

  • Nicely rounds out the support for accessibility across the Apple ecosystem by expanding on the support for VoiceOver in the previous model, adding Zoom and providing many of the same options for customizing the interface that are available on other Apple devices.
  • Major accessibility features such as VoiceOver and Zoom are responsive and perform well, with little lag.
  • The interface is cleaner and works better across the room: for example, it is now much easier for me to tell when an item has focus, something I struggle with on my third-generation Apple TV (especially on my smaller TV).
  • Other than the new Siri remote there are no other options for controlling the new Apple TV, which does have an impact on accessibility for some users. I hope this situation is addressed soon through a software update.

Setup and Interface

Setup for the new Apple TV couldn’t be easier. Once you have your power and HDMI cables connected and your new device has come on, you can triple-click the Menu button to turn on VoiceOver so that it can guide you through the rest of the setup. After you have selected your langauge and country/region, a brand new feature even allows you to place your iPhone (running iOS 9.1 or later) near the Apple TV to provide it with your network and Apple ID information.

Setup screen for Apple TV showing option to set it up with information from iOS device

The rest of the setup goes as expected, with selections for enabling location services and Siri, sending diagnostics data to Apple and developers, agreeing to the terms of service no one reads and so on.

Once the setup is complete, you will notice that the new interface is much brighter than the old one, with light gray backgrounds rather than black throughout.

Home screen on 4th generation Apple TV

Some people have complained about this, and I can see where it can be a problem if you have an Apple TV in your bedroom and want to use it while the other person (roommate or significant other) is trying to sleep. It would be nice to have the option of a dark theme like Invert Colors on iOS devices for those who prefer it.

Overall, I found the interface to be much easier for me to use. The item that has the focus pops out a bit, which is a more pronounced focus indidcator from in the older interface. Whether on the apps grid or in the menus I found this change made it easier for me to quickly know what item I had selected. The interface supports greater customization than on any previous Apple TV, thanks to an entire section labeled Interface in the Settings.

When you go into Settings, the first thing you will notice is that the Accessibility options are now near the top of the General pane. In fact, they are one of the first things you see, right after the optons for the screenreader. On the previous Apple TV model, you had to scroll quite a bit to locate Accessibility toward the bottom of the General pane.

Accessibility options are found under General in Settings.

Of course, you can still use the Accessibility shortcut to quickly enable and disable accessibility features without going into Settings. Whereas on the old Apple TV you invoked this Accessibility Shortcut (it was actually called the Accessibility Menu) by pressing and holding the Menu button, on the new one you do it by triple-clicking that same button (much like you triple-click the Home button on iOS devices to do the same thing). A nice touch is that VoiceOver will read the options shown by the Accessibility Shortcut even if you have it disabled in Settings.

In addition to the Accessibility Shortcut, the new Interface section of the Acccessibiliy pane includes a number of options for cusotmizing the appearance of the display (similar to options already found on iOS and Apple Watch), including:

  • Bold Text: a simple toggle that provides more weight to the text labels. Enabling this feature will require a quick restart just as it does on other Apple devices.
  • Increase Contrast: there are two options. The first reduces the transparency, while the second one changes the focus style by adding a thick outline around the currently selected item.
  • Reduce Motion: another toggle that removes animations throughout the interface for those who are sensitive to the extra motion.

Along with adjusting the appearance of the interface, the new Apple TV has retained the options for customizing closed captions that were available before. These are found in the Media section of the Accessibility pane, where you can also enable audio descriptions for programs that include them. In addition to turning on the captions, you can still customize the style by selecting Large Text and Classic options or creating your own style with many options for both the text and the background.

Siri

Updated 11/5/15: Siri is one of the major selling points of the new Apple TV and I’ve finally had a chance to play around with it as I have started to interact with content on the device.  Apple TV’s Siri allows you to do a number of things using speech: search for movies (“show me movies with Penelope Cruz”), refine your search (“only her dramas from 2012”), navigate (“open Photos” or my favorite – “home screen”), and control playback (“pause this,” “skip forward 30 seconds,” etc.) From an accessibility perspective, it allows you to enable/disable VoiceOver, “Turn on closed captions” while you are watching content, and if you miss something you can just say “What did he/she say?” and the playback will rewind 15 seconds and temporarily turn n the captions. I love this feature because it highlights the usefulness of captions not just as an accessibility feature but as an example of design that benefits everyone (universal design).  My only concern with Siri is that you have to hold down the button the entire time you are speaking your request. That could be an issue for some people with motor difficulties, especially as you start to use Siri all the time. I am hoping that eventually there is an always on feature like “hey Siri” on the iPhone.

VoiceOver and Zoom

These two features in the Vision section of the Accessibility pane are the biggest changes to the accessiiblity of the Apple TV in the new model. Zoom is brand new, and supports magnification up to 15X (the default is 5X). Once Zoom is enabled, you will zoom in and out by triple-clicking the touchpad on the new remote. While you are zoomed in, you can interact with Zoom in a variety of ways:

  • drag one finger over the touchpad to pan in any direction. As you pan, an overlay will let you give you an idea of what area of the interface you are zoomed in on (very similar to the indicator you get with Apple Watch when you use the Digital Crown to zoom by row).
  • stop panning by tapping the touchpad with two fingers. At that point, you will be able to use the usual flicking gestures to move from one item to the next without panning, but you can resume panning at any time with a second two-finger tap on the touchpad.
  • adjust the zoom level by double-tapping with two fingers, holding, and then swiping up or down with the two fingers without letting go. The maximum amount you can zoom will be determined by the value selected in Settings.

Update 11/5/15: In a previous version of this post I noted that I could get the labels read aloud each time I double-clicked the Siri button. The next day, I could not get my Apple TV to do it again and couldn’t figure out why. It turns out that this is a feature of Zoom. If Zoom is enabled, you can double-click the Siri button to hear an item read aloud.

VoiceOver was already available on the older model, but the touchpad allows it to be an even more robust solution on the new one. If you have used VoiceOver on an iOS device (or on a Mac laptop) you will already be somewhat familiar with how to interact with VoiceOver on the new Apple TV. However, if you do need some help, just know that you now have a VoiceOver Practice that is only shown when you have VoiceOver turned on (sound familiar, iOS users?).

VoiceOver practice is available once VoiceOver is turned on.

VoiceOver supports the following gestures on the new Apple TV remote (all gestures are performed on the touchpad area of the new remote):

  • Move your finger around on the touchpad: move the focus to have VoiceOver speak the currently selected item aloud.
  • Flick in any direction with one finger: move the focus in a given direction.
  • Click on the touchpad: make a selection.
  • Flick down with two fingers: read from the current location to the bottom.
  • Flick up with two fingers: start reading from the top of the screen.
  • Two-finger tap: pause/resume speaking.

Again, these gestures should be familiar if you have used an iOS device or a Mac laptop with the Trackpad Commander turned on. Speaking of the Trackpad Commander, the rotor is also supported and, you guessed it, you turn the virtual dial clockwise or counter-clockwise with two fingers to select a rotor option and then flick up or down with one finger to adjust its value.

The rotor can be used to adjust the speech rate with more control (as opposed to the option in Settings that only allows you to select from a few preset values such as “Very Slow” or “Very Fast”). It also allows you hear items read by character or word, to enable or disable Direct Touch (where instead of flicking to navigate in a linear way you can just move your finger on the touchpad to move around the interface with more freedom) and more (I’m still trying to figure out a few of the options such as Navigate and Explore).

You can use Siri to turn on VoiceOver (just say “Turn VoiceOver on”) but for some reason you can’t do the same for Zoom and other settings. When I tried it all it did was open the Settings, but it didn’t take me to Zoom or turn on the feature as requested.

First Impressions

Overall, I like the new Apple TV from my limited exposure to it in the few hours since it arrived at my home. I like the updated interface, which is more cleanly laid out and designed for better visibility from across the room. From an accessibility perspective, I think Apple TV is the best game in town. None of the other set top boxes I have tried have the accessibility support Apple TV had even before the new model came out.

The new model ups the ante with more options for customizing the appearance of the interface, the addition of Zoom for those who have low vision, and an enhanced VoiceOver that is more than ready for use with apps (though how well that works will depend as always on how well developers incorporate accessibility support in their apps). Performance is a lot better too. I almost forgot just how much time I spent waiting on my older Apple TV until I switched back to compare some of the features. The new model is a lot more responsive and just performs better all around.

Having said all that, whether I end up liking this Apple TV as much as I have the previous model will depend on what happens in the next few weeks and months as updates to tvOS are released. As good as the accessibility features and performance of this new version are, there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed:

  • No Podcasts app: The company that basically brought us the podcast has launched a set top box without a dedicated podcast app (and as I write this, there are no Apple TV versions of Downcast or Overcast in the App Store). Aside from renting movies, podcasts are the next thing i consume the most on Apple TV. I can set them to play in the background while I do other things around the house, and I have a number of favorites I listen to on a regular basis. I’m hoping Apple is just taking a little bit more time to make sure the podcast app is done right when it is finally released.
  • No Remote app support: the current Remote app for iOS is not compatible with the new Apple TV. This means that someone with a motor difficulty is not able to use Switch Control on an iOS device to navigate the Apple TV interface through the Remote app. While the built in accessibility features of the new Apple TV do an excellent job of accommodating the needs of those with vision and hearing difficulties, it is important to address this omission to make sure switch users can enjoy the Apple TV along with the rest of us.
  • No support for external Bluetooth keyboards: Probably my biggest annoyance was having to go back to typing in user names and passwords with the onscreen keyboard. I have always used either the Remote app for iOS or an external keyboard connected over Bluetooth for this purpose, but both options are not possible at launch. Especially when entering complicated passwords, doing it on an external keyboaard is much faster and easier.
  • The remote: I generally like the new remote. It is lightweight and feels good in the hand. My issue is that I know there is good likelihood that I will lose the thing and it will cost me $79 to replace it (the previous remote was only $19 for comparison). I’m thinking I may buy a $25 tile and find a way to attach it to the remote just in case. I’m surprised Apple did not build the same Ping feature that is available between the Apple Watch and the iPhone, allowing us to quickly find a misplaced remote by emitting a loud ping sound. For now Tile may be my best bet ($25 is much better than $79). In the meantime, I have set up my existing TV remote to work with the Apple TV.

Most of these issues are easily fixable with a software update and as I went to publish this post I read that Apple had released a beta of tvOS 9.1, the first update for the new Apple TV. It is unclear whether this update will bring back some of the features listed above, or if it is just a bug fix release. Time will tell.

Are you planning to buy an Apple TV? If you already have it, what do you like about it? What do you think can be improved?

Apple Watch – A Few Months In

As many tech commentators have stated, Apple Watch is the kind of device that takes a while to grow on you. Part of that is figuring out where it fits in with the other tech you already own, and part of it is that it is still early on in the development of Apple Watch as a platform. The release of watchOS now allows for native apps that can not only run faster but also have access to many of the hardware features of the device, such as the microphone, the heart rate sensor and so on. This provides even more options for what developers can do with Apple Watch, and it will be exciting to see how it translates into apps that allow you to use your voice for even better accessibility.

After a few months of using the wearable, here is my take on it.

The Good

  • Battery life seems to be improved with watchOS 2: I have not done any scientific tests to confirm this, but since I updated to watchOS 2 it seems the battery is lasting longer into the following day when I forget to charge the watch. Are any of you seeing the same thing? To me, battery life is the key feature of all of these mobile devices (not how thin or how fast they run – they are already thinner and more powerful than we really need them to be in my opinion). As I have stated before, battery life is key for a device you rely on for accessibility throughout the day.
  • Native apps are a great addition: Not only do they run faster, but opening up access to the microphone and other hardware really expands what can be done with the device. One app that demonstrates this is Just Press Record (a voice memo app with iCloud saving capabilities). I am using this app to quickly save random bits of information (confirmation numbers, etc.) before they are lost or forgotten, but you can use it jus like any portable recorder (to record a quick interview, podcast, etc.).Just Press Record opens with a big record button
  • Apple Watch really shines on the road: Recently, I took my first trip where I did not use any kind of paper boarding pass throughout the entire journey. All of my boarding passes were added to Wallet from my airline’s app and I was able to check in at the gate using my Apple Watch. No paper to lose or misplace is a great thing for me, and overall digital is more accessible than paper to me too (at least when the app is accessible). While at the airport, I was also able to pay for Starbucks with my watch, instead of having to take out my phone while trying to manage both my white cane and my carry on bag. These are the kinds of interactions where I find the convenience of having every thing on my wrist truly valuable.
  • Apple Watch works great for text messaging and quick phone calls: Text messages are ideal for Apple Watch (they tend to be short and sweet). I love that I can be notified with a quick pulse on my wrist and then send a quick reply by selecting from a preset list of responses, selecting an emoji, or using my voice to dictate a response. With phone calls, I know who is usually a quick phone call and who will require switching to the iPhone. If it’s a contact I know will be a quick call I take it on the watch so I don’t have to go through the trouble of locating my iPhone. Even though you can now reply to emails as well with watchOS 2, I don’t find myself emailing from the watch that often. I do often use it to manage my email though: by dismissing and archiving emails so that I have fewer to look at when I get back to the iPhone or my Mac (works great for getting through all the spam!).
  • Directions in Maps is a killer feature: Using the Taptic Engine to let you know when it’s time to turn is both cool and useful. I am using this feature both for walking directions and while helping to navigate in the car (for everyone’s safety I don’t drive due to my visual impairment).

Overall, I am very happy with the Apple Watch, but as with any technology it’s not perfect.

The Not So Good

  • The watch bands: I have two, the Milanese loop and the Sport band in green. I have not yet tried any of the third-party bands. Of the two bands I have, I find the Milanese loop to be the easiest for me to use, but it looks a bit strange when you are at the gym or doing something more active. The Sport band is very comfortable and works well in those situations, but it is not the easiest to get on my wrist. When I first heard about Apple Watch I thought the watch bands would be like a “slap bracelet” that you could just put on your wrist and snap closed. I know Griffin used to make one of those for the old iPod nano, but I have not seen that option for the Apple Watch yet. If one becomes available, I’ll be first in line.

    Griffin slap bracelet for iPod nano.
    Let’s bring back slap bracelets, like this one from Griffin fro the old iPod nano.
  • The charger: I am not sure if it is possible from an engineering standpoint but what I would love is an adapter that just lets me use the same Lightning cable I plan to take with me to charge my iPhone. It looks like there will be third-party docks with an integrated charger that you will be able to use at home to charge the watch, but that will not help when you are on the road and every additional thing you have to carry adds weight. And, the watch charger is one more thing you have to remember to pack.

What are your thoughts on Apple Watch? What are your favorite features? What can be improved? Let me know in the comments.

A Workflow for Independence – Logan’s Story

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Logan Prickett, a second year student at Auburn University at Montgomery. Logan is an academically gifted STEM student and the inspiration behind The Logan Project at AUM, an initiative to develop software that will enable students who are blind or who have low vision to fully participate in all college-level math courses.

Luis and Logan.

At age 13, Logan suffered an anaphylactic reaction to the contrast dye in an MRI. His heart stopped beating on its own which left him without oxygen for 45 minutes. Logan believes that “a prayer chain that reached around the world was active during those 45 minutes and I credit God and those prayers for the heartbeat that brought me back to life.”

His time without oxygen left Logan blind, a wheelchair user, with fine motor control difficulties, and unable to speak above a whisper due to damage to his vocal cords that occurred during life saving measures. Logan has the cognitive ability to do the work in his courses, he just needs a few technology supports in place to ensure his vision and motor challenges do not get in the way and prevent him from tapping his full potential. The goal of the Logan Project is thus to eliminate barriers for students with complex needs like Logan so that they can not only complete required math coursework but pursue a career in a STEM field if they desire. This is worthy goal given the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in STEM fields. You can learn more about it by typing The Logan Project into the search bar on the AUM website (aum.edu).

The Goal: Independent Communication

When I met with Logan and his team the expressed goal was to get Logan started on the journey to independent communication, beginning with the ability to send and receive short messages with his family and those close to him. Logan had just acquired an iPhone 6 Plus and we considered the use of Switch Control since Logan has enough motor control to press a switch. To accommodate his visual impairment, we decided that Logan would use Switch Control with manual scanning and the speech support turned on. This way he would be able to hear the items on the screen as he presses the switches to scan through them at a pace that works for him. The one problem with this setup is the possibility of fatigue from repeated switch presses. Siri seemed like a possibility for getting around this issue, but unfortunately Siri is not able to recognize Logan’s low whisper to allow him to quickly send a text message or initiate a FaceTime call. Surprisingly, FaceTime can pick up Logan’s whisper well so that it can be understood on the other end of the call. Although he can be heard with an actual phone call as well, the audio with a FaceTime call is much better. Thus, if we could find a way to activate FaceTime with a minimum of effort we would go a long way toward giving Logan an option for communication while he develops his Switch Control skills. That’s where the Workflow app comes in.

Workflow to the Rescue

I knew about the Workflow app because it made history as the first app to get an Apple design award for its attention to accessibility. In fact, at the Design Awards, members of Apple’s engineering team who are blind were the ones who actually did the demo of the app to show how well it works with the VoiceOver screen reader built into Apple’s mobile devices. You can watch the demo on Apple’s WWDC 2015 site (the Workflow demo starts at 35 minutes and goes through the 42 minute mark.)

As the name suggests, Workflow is a utility for creating workflows that allow the user to chain together a series of actions to complete a given task. For example, as I often do tutorials with screenshots from my Apple Watch, I have created a workflow that automatically takes the latest Apple Watch screenshot saved to my Camera Roll on the iPhone and shares it to my computer using Airdrop so that I can quickly add it to a blog post or a presentation. This kind of workflow can save a lot of time and effort for tasks that you perform several times over the course of a day.

Workflow already includes many actions for built-in iOS apps such as Contacts, FaceTime and Messages. These actions can be chained together to create a workflow, with the output from one action used as the input for the next one in the chain. Thus, a workflow can consist of selecting an entry in the Contacts app and feeding its information into the FaceTime app to start a new call with the selected contact. In much the same way, the entry from the Contacts app can be combined with a Text action to start Messages, pre-fill the message body and automatically address the message. For Logan this kind of workflow would reduce the amount of work he would have to perform and allow him to send quick messages to his team, such as “I’m ready for pick up” or “class is running late.” There is even the possibility of sharing his location so that other team members can get an idea of where Logan is at different points in the day.

Once a workflow has been created it is possible to add it as a shortcut on the Home Screen, with its own descriptive name, icon and color. By organizing these shortcuts on the Home Screen it is possible to create a simple communication system for Logan, giving him the ability to use Switch Control to independently start FaceTime calls, send quick messages and more.

Going Forward

The ultimate goal is to develop Logan’s ability to communicate independently and this will require building up his skills as a new switch user. With time and practice, I have no doubt after getting to know Logan that he will become a proficient user of Switch Control. In the meantime, Workflow is a good option for building his confidence and giving him some good reasons to use those skills: communicating with those who are important to him with a minimum of effort. When he is ready, he could then add an alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) app such as Proloquo4Text to his arsenal of communication tools, as well as keyboards such as Keeble and Phraseboard that make it easier for switch user to enter text. Logan has demonstrated that he has the ability to do well in higher education; now we just have to figure out how to eliminate a few barriers that are standing in his way and preventing him from letting his ability shine.

Closing the Gap Roundup

Last week, I had the privilege of once again attending the Closing the Gap Conference in Minnesota. This conference has a long tradition of bringing together thought leaders in the field of assistive technology from all sectors: education, rehabilitation, vocation and independent living. It is always great to see many of the people I follow  and learn from online at this conference. This year, I had the pleasure of doing a two-block session with the amazing Diana Petschauer of Assistive Technology for Education, as well as several sessions with my friend and fellow Apple Distinguished Educator Mark Coppin of the Anne Carlsen Center.  Diana and I did a two-block session, Apps Across the Curriculum, which was divided into two mini-sessions: one focusing on Chrome apps and extensions for supporting diverse learners, the other on the built-in accessibility features of iOS and iPad apps for providing access to the curriculum. The sessions with Mark ranged from one on the Apple Watch as a assistive technology, to one on the many third-party keyboards available for iOS. At that session we were joined by reps from AssistiveWare, TextHelp and Crick (a big thank you to all of them!)  who demoed each of their respective keyboards. I really had a nice time and learned a lot during these sessions. That is the biggest benefit from doing a collaborative session rather than one where you are the only presenter. You get to learn from some of the best in the industry.

I had limited time on the exhibit floor this year, but what follows is a quick rundown of what I found to be the most interesting products.

Hardware

The Hook+ from AbleNet is quickly becoming a favorite switch interface of mine. Not only is it small and lightweight, but setting it up couldn’t be easier. You just plug it in and using Apple’s auto switch configurator feature it can automatically configure the iOS device to use single switch auto scanning or dual switch step scanning based on how many switches are connected. Since it is MFi (Made for iPhone) compliant, there is no error message on the screen when you first plug it into the iOS device. A nice touch is that there is a battery pass through so that you can charge the iOS device while using the Hook+, so that you don’t run out of juice at a critical time. Up to four switches can be connected to the Hook+.

Closing the Gap was my first chance to see the new Kinetic for iPad product from Pretorian Technologies. According to Pretorian, the idea for this product is to “put the fun back in learning” using the principles of kinesthetic learning. All of the work in the Kinetic is done by a gyroscope that detects changing in orientation, taps and movement. I saw two different demos of Kinetic: in one, the Kinetic was inserted into a big cube which could play a different message on the iPad depending on the cube face that was facing up; in the other, the Kinetic was placed into a smaller soft toy which could act as a switch when tapped, dropped or kicked. I would encourage you to check out the videos on the Pretorian site to get a better idea of how the Kinetic works.

Apps

Crick demoed its latest app, Clicker Communicator. This AAC app seeks, according to John Crick, to make communication “personal, meaningful and accessible.” Personal refers to how the symbols can be customized, which can include using a new painting tool to change their appearance. The app ships with 24,000 SymbolStix symbols and 2,500 Crick symbols, with PCS and Widgit symbol sets available as in-app purchases. Meaningful refers to the availability of a number of free Learning Grids vocabulary sets designed to be used in specific classroom lessons. Finally, accessible refers to the inclusion of the SuperKeys access method with the app. This causes the symbols to act in much the same way the keys do in the SuperKeys third party keyboard for iOS. Symbols are grouped into clusters on the screen. When a cluster is selected, the symbols in that cluster come to foreground and are presented much larger. The larger hit area is meant to make the symbols easier to select for those who have motor difficulties. Clicker Communicator is available for $159.99 (with in-app purchases of $49.99 for each additional symbol package). It is part of the Volume Purchasing Program which allows for a 50% discount with purchases of 20 or more copies of the app.

AssistiveWare’s Pictello now supports importing from Tar Heel Reader books, which is welcome news to those (like me) who are big fans of both tools. There is no need to update the Pictello app. Instead, a Tar Heel Reader Story Converter tool is available on the AssistiveWare website with the steps needed to convert a Tar Heel book so that it can be opened in Pictello. Basically all you need is the Tar Heel Reader book’s URL, which you then enter into the converter tool to get a Pictello file emailed to you. Once you receive this file, you can open it in Pictello and do anything you can do with the app: add video, use any of the high quality voices for text to speech, continue the story by adding pages and more.

Speaking of AssistiveWare: the company did a number of sessions focused on the 4.1 version of the Proloquo2Go app, which now supports usuarios bilingues como yo (bilingual users like me). You can read all about it on the AssistiveWare site.

There were a couple of other interesting AAC apps I saw on the exhibit floor for the first time this year.  I would summarize Coughdrop as “Google apps for AAC.” The idea is that communication boards  can be synced across multiple devices so that if one device  breaks or runs out of battery, communication can be continued on a different device. The boards are actually stored offline on the device so that they can be used without a Wifi connection. Everything syncs up when a connection is available. Coughdrop is currently in beta and available as a free 2-month trial. After that it is available as a subscription of $3-10 per communicator (parents and therapists remain free).

Lectio is a new reading support app.  Using the camera on an iOS device, the app recognizes individual words on the scanned page and turns them into yellow highlights that can be tapped to hear each word read aloud. Lectio is available for $4.99 on the App Store.

Did you attend this year’s Closing the Gap Conference? Are there any products you were able to check out that I have left off this roundup? I look forward to seeing you at CTG next year.