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2X the Productivity with DisplayPad

Ok, I may be exaggerating about the 2X boost in productivity, but DisplayPad has been one of the most useful apps I have purchased recently. With DisplayPad ($4.99), you can set up your iPad to serve as a portable secondary display for a laptop. When working with programs that have a lot of settings panels, such as Photoshop and other Adobe software, having a second display can save you a lot of time.

The app is really simple to set up and use. You will need to download a helper program that will run on your Mac. To start using DisplayPad, click on the helper program’s menu bar icon and choose your iPad (both devices need to be on the same Wifi network). Your iPad will then act just like any secondary display. Tapping with one finger will be the same as clicking with the mouse, and tapping twice will be the same as right-clicking. You can also drag with two fingers to scroll, just like on your laptop’s trackpad. I have been very happy with the performance. There is very little lag when you drag windows from your laptop screen to the iPad. I have even used DisplayPad with my regular secondary display to create a triple-display option when I use my laptop at home.

Creating Podcasts with the new iPod touch

In this post I will discuss two apps that work well with the new iPod touch for creating narrated slideshows that can be turned into podcasts.

The first app is SonicPics ($2.99, a free lite version limits you to 10 minutes and 3 images so you can try out the app). With the paid version the recording limit is 60 minutes and you can choose from three quality settings for the audio (Good, Better or Best, which is 44.1khz, 16-bit mono). To get started you select photos from your photo library on the iPod touch or you can take a photo with one of the built-in cameras. Each photo can have a title and description that can be displayed during the slideshow.

To narrate the slideshow, you’ll press the Record button at the bottom of the screen and then flip through the photos in the slideshow using the familiar iPod touch flick gesture. This makes it really easy to synch your voice with the slideshow. You can even pause a recording if you need to, and resume from where you left off. When you’re finished, several sharing options are available: you can share the video to your computer over Wifi if both devices are on the same network, you can upload the video to your YouTube account, or you can email it as an attachment if it is not too large (usually 10MB is the cutoff for most email accounts). The format for the exported video is .m4v, which is the format supported by iTunes (and iTunes U).

Overall, I found this app to be really easy to use and a good bargain.

Storyrobe (free) has many of the same features as SonicPics, but you’re limited to 3 minutes in the current version. I actually like this limit for podcasts created by students as it can encourage them to focus and not ramble on. Creating a story with Storyrobe is a three step process: select photos from your photo library or take a photo with the built in cameras, organize photos into the right order, and record your audio. While you’re recording, you advance to the next photo in your slideshow by tapping the Next Image button at the bottom of the screen.

As with SonicPics, you can pause in the middle of a recording and pick up right where you left off. The finished video can be uploaded to YouTube directly from the iPod touch, saved to your Camera Roll and transferred to your computer with iPhoto, or you can email a link to it. It looks like the video is saved as an .mp4 file, but it was not clear to me how long the recording would be available if you email it as a link (the actual file is saved on the developer’s site).

I found out while reading the comments on the app’s iTunes Store page that it used to cost $2.99 and is now free while the developer works on a second version (version 1.0 is the one currently available for download). I anticipate the new version will be priced at $2.99 to stay competitive with SonicPics and other similar apps.

So there you have it. Two inexpensive apps that allow you to create a podcast without using a computer. All the work (taking photos, recording narration, saving the movie) is done on your iPod touch.

VoiceOver language rotor in IOS 4

As a result of a Twitter conversation this past week, I learned (thanks to Pratik Patel) a neat new feature that has been added to VoiceOver for the iPod touch and iPhone with the release of IOS 4. When you go into the VoiceOver settings of these devices, you should find a new option: Language Rotor. The Language Rotor allows you to quickly change the language used by VoiceOver by turning an imaginary dial on the touchscreen. This feature has been available on some Mac laptops, where you can use the rotor gesture to navigate web pages by headings, links and the like. It was good to see that this gesture has been added for language selection in IOS 4. This should really benefit anyone who wants to use VoiceOver to read back a book in a different language with iBooks, or when you access a web page from overseas that is in a language other than English (I suppose language students would be helped out by this feature too).

By going into the VoiceOver preferences on an iPod touch or iPhone (Settings, General, Accessibility, VoiceOver) you can select Language Rotor and then choose the languages that will be available when you use the Language Rotor. There were 34 languages available on my device, and a nice touch is that for some languages you have some dialects available as well (Spanish from Mexico as opposed to Mexico, or French from Canada as opposed to France).

To use the Language Rotor, use the dial turning gesture on the iPod touch or iPhone touchscreen until you hear Language, then flick up and down to select from the languages you have selected to make available in the settings. Another nice touch is that there is a visual indicator as you turn the dial. This feature was added to help out sighted users when they work with people who have visual disabilities and use VoiceOver.

The Language Rotor should be available on the iPad when that device gets an update to IOS 4 in November.

Testing for accessibility with screen readers.

Accessibility NZ had a provocative blog post on whether sighted web developers should use screen reading software to test the accessibility of their sites. Based on a conversation I had with a fellow instructional designer, it appears that the blog post might be misunderstood.

The point the author is making is not that sighted developers should skip doing accessibility testing with screen readers and only rely on testing with people who are actually blind, but rather that accessibility testing should not end with the tools.  It can, and should, include both. The first past with testing tools can help you identify the most glaring problems and save you both time and money by letting you focus on the more difficult problems when you test with end users (which cost money to recruit)

Testing with a representative sample of people in the target demographic is just good instructional design anyway. The only difference in this case that we should not test with just the average user, but keep in mind legal requirements such as Section 508 and  include a variety of people in the testing before we can say a site is accessible. The more diversity the better. This will provide not only good accessibility information, but good usability information that will benefit everyone who visits the site.

The author on Accessibility NZ  made another good point: there are other disabilities out there. Yes, it is true that the web tends to present the biggest challenge to those who are visually impaired, but even within that population there are a range of needs. Someone like me who still has some sight will not use the same site in the same way as someone who is completely blind. I’m probably more like a sighted developer than someone who is completely blind, yet I could say a site is accessible based on my disability, but  my assessment would not be representative of most people who are bind. When testing, we need to consider a range of different needs.

This is one post where reading the comments is actually something I would recommend. I was impressed by the reasonable and civil way in which the people in the comments conducted the discussion around this topic, and the range of perspectives they brought to the table.

oMoby for iPod touch

Alena Roberts recently featured oMoby on her Blind Perspective blog. oMoby is intended as a shopping app, but as Alena has suggested it can have other uses for people with visual impairments. oMoby uses the iPhone/iPod touch 4G camera to snap a picture of any product you come across while shopping. The picture is then compared against a database and oMoby will provide you with a list of possible products/items. The fact that you don’t have to scan a bar code for this app to work makes it easier fo use for someone with low vision who might not be able to properly locate the bar code.

I had to try oMoby for myself to see how it works, and I was blown away with how well this app performs. Just like Alena, I wanted to see if I could use the app as a replacement for a currency identifier. I tried the app with both $1 and $5 bills and both times it accurately identified them. It had a more difficult time with coins (it could not correctly identify a quarter, only telling me that it was a silver coin). While not perfect for this purpose, oMoby is pretty good consideirng it is a free app.

The other thing to point out about oMoby is that I found it to work well with VoiceOver, the screen reader now included with all new iPod touch and iPhone models. So, to sum up, oMoby is a shopping app that has the potential to replace a much more expensive currency identifier used by those with visual impairments, and it can do it for $0 dollars. Not a bad deal.

Here is the link for it on the Apple Store.

My first week with the new iPod touch.

My iPod touch finally arrived and it has now been a week, so I’ve had a chance to take it through the paces. I really believe this is the best iPod Apple has ever made.

Pros: good video quality, ability to post video directly to YouTube, multi-tasking and other IOS 4 improvements, good battery life and performance with A4 processor, FaceTime video calling, accessibility features in the entire iPod touch lineup, no phone contract with ATT&T.

Cons: lackluster still camera, so thin sometimes you have to struggle to use the volume buttons on the side of the device.

Of course there are all the features we who have owned an iPhone or a previous version of the iPod touch have gotten used to, but three new features set this device apart: FaceTime, high resolution video + still cameras, and the addition of the A4 processor (the same type used for the iPad).

The addition of the two cameras, which has made possible FaceTime video calling over WiFi,  was one of the big things that made me want to get the new iPod touch. However, I found it kind of difficult to connect with others using FaceTime. This should be less of a problem as FaceTime becomes more established throughout the Apple ecosystem (there is a rumor it could come to iChat soon, which would really increase the number of people you could connect with). When I was able to connect with someone, FaceTime worked great. The video quality using the front facing camera was pretty good. While there were times when the video got jerky and froze, as with any video app this was probably  due to the speed of the Internet connection at both ends of the call. Overall, I was pretty happy with FaceTime and cant’ wait until I have more people using it.

Of the two cameras, the video camera is the better one. While I do not have an iPhone 4 to compare the iPod touch to, I do have a Kodak zi8 that takes pretty good 720p video and 5 MP still images. There are plenty of  side to side comparisons posted online if you want to see a head to head battle of the two iDevices, but in my opinion the difference between the two is not that great, especially if you just plan to post video to YouTube where it is going to be compressed with a loss of quality anyway. The video camera on the iPod touch does not have a zoom, which is a big thing the iPhone 4 (and the Kodak camera) has going for it (even if it is only a digital zoom). The low light performance of the iPod touch is also somewhat weak. For taking video in well lit conditions (such as vacation footage shot outdoors) this camera will do the trick. It also has the advantage of being able to post the video directly to YouTube (or MobileMe), rather than having to wait to transfer the video to a computer first, then uploading to YouTube. This feature alone makes the iPod touch a worthwhile portable video camera.

The still camera will do if you really don’t want to miss a shot, but it is not really an adequate still camera at less than 1MP resolution. Just like the video camera it really struggles with low light conditions, where the pictures get so grainy they are sometimes unusable. Again, outdoors things do get a little better, and the fact that you can now use a bunch of the same photo apps available for the iPhone helps (my favorites are Photogene, Best Camera, and Camera Bag). As long as you remember its limitations, the iPod touch still camera will do fine for Facebook, where the feeling of the moment and getting the shot is often more important than its quality.

The addition of the A4 processor makes this iPod touch a great portable gaming device, but it’s not something that will blow you away, unless you’re like me and you have been suffering with an older iPhone with a hacked OS. Given my point of comparison, I was very impressed with how well this new device handles games. The new iPod also has pretty good battery life, which is more important to me than an incremental bump in processing speed and performance. However, with the A4 processor, the new iPod touch does a great job of handling multi-tasking. Opening and closing apps also happens pretty fast, and it is nice to be able to listen to music on Pandora while checking email and texting. This will make you use your older iPhone or other iDevice much less once you get used to it.

Last and not least, one of the big reasons for getting this iPod for me is that it finally includes VoiceOver and other assistive features even at the base model, which is the 8GB model I ordered. Apple should be applauded for including these technologies throughout their entire iPod lineup, rather than limiting its availability in the higher capacity (and more expensive) models. While most people will not need these features (or even know they are included), as an educator I am pleased to see them made available to everyone who purchases the new iPod touch. This will go a long way toward making the iPod touch a viable educational tool I can use in the classroom to support all students.

Awareness app for iPod touch

Cost: $4.99

iTunes URL: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/awareness-the-headphone-app/id389245456?mt=8

Awareness bills itself as the “headphone app for the iPhone.” It is an app that lets you listen to music and other audio content on an iPod touch/iPhone while also picking up on ambient sound.

I have wanted an app like this because I really like listening to music on my iPod touch/iPhone (I have both) but I also need to be aware of my surroundings since I have limited vision.  I could not believe how well this app worked. At first I thought the price was kind of high for a one-trick pony, but given how well it works I think it’s worth it. It actually freaked me out a bit the first time I used the app while walking around my college campus. It was weird that I could hear people talking before they came into view. For a while, I felt “bionic”. The app is so sensitive (you can adjust this in the settings) that it even picked up the sound of my cane as I tapped on different surfaces during my walk.

This app would definitely be a big help to anyone who has a hearing impairment (including those who are losing their hearing due to old age and need some help hearing the tv, etc.). The cost and convenience would make it a great alternative for providing accommodations to students with hearing impairments in educational settings (it could replace a sound amplification system).