Overview of new accessibility features in IOS 5

With IOS 5, Apple has introduced a number of features to make their mobile devices even more accessible to people with disabilities:

  • VoiceOver enhancements: IOS 5 includes an updated voice for VoiceOver, the built-in screen reader for people who have visual disabilities. I have found the new voice to be a great improvement over the old one, especially when reading long passages of text in apps such as iBooks. Another improvement is that the triple-click home option is set to toggle VoiceOver by default. Along with the PC-free setup introduced with IOS 5, this small change has made it possible for someone with a visual disability to independently configure his or her IOS device out of the box, without any help from a sighted person. The Mac-cessibility website has an excellent overview of the many new changes in VoiceOver that I highly recommend reading.
  • Camera app compatibility with VoiceOver: this is a neat feature that will make photography more accessible to people with low vision and those who are blind. With VoiceOver on, if you launch the Camera app it will announce how many faces are in the frame. In my testing this worked pretty well, and I’ve used it successfully on the iPad and the iPod touch. It should work even better on the iPhone, which has a better sensor and optics. Combined with the ability to turn on the camera app from the lock screen on some devices (iPhone and iPod touch) by double-tapping the home button and the fact that you can use the volume up button as a shutter release, Apple has done a lot to make photography more accessible to people with visual disabilities.
  • Text selection showing Speak menu option.Speak selection (text to speech): This is one of my favorite features introduced with IOS 5. It provides another modality for students with learning disabilities who can benefit from hearing the text read aloud to them. To use it, go into Settings, General, Accessibility, tap Speak Selection and choose On. Once you’ve enabled this feature, when you select text a popup will show the option to Speak the text using the VoiceOver voice. Note that you can control the speaking rate for the speak selection feature independently from VoiceOver.
  •  Balance controls for audio: In addition to mono-audio, which combines both channels of stereo audio into a single mono channel, there is now an option for controlling the  left/right balance for stereo sound. On the iPhone, there is now also a special Hearing Aid mode that is supposed to make the device more compatible with hearing aids.
  • Handling of incoming calls: you can choose to automatically route incoming calls to the speaker phone feature of the phone, or to a headset.
  • New alert types: on the iPhone, you can use one of five unique vibration patterns to identify who is calling if you have a hearing disability, or you can create your own pattern by tapping it on the screen. These custom vibration patterns can be assigned in the Contacts app by opening a contact’s information, choosing Edit, Vibration and then Create New Vibration. There is also an option to have the LED  flash go off when you get a notification, a new message, and so on.
  • Assistive touch: this was one of the most anticipated accessibility features in IOS 5. Assistive touch was designed to make IOS devices easier to use for people with motor difficulties. For example, someone who is not able to tap the Home button to exit an app can now bring up an overlay menu with icons for many of the hardware functions of their device, including the Home button. Overlay menu for assistive touch.Assistive touch also includes options allowing for single finger use of many of the multi-touch gestures (including the new four finger gestures available only for the iPad and the pinch gesture used for zooming). To use assistive touch, choose Settings, General, Accessibility and turn on Assistive Touch. You will know assistive touch is enabled when you see a floating circular icon on the screen. Tapping this icon will open the overlay menu with the assistive touch options. Note that you can move the assistive touch icon to another area of the screen if it gets in the way. Please note that Assistive Touch is not compatible with VoiceOver. I really wish the two features could work in tandem. This would be helpful to users with multiple disabilities.
  • Custom gestures: assistive touch includes an option to create your own gestures. Update: I was able to create a few useful gestures after watching this video from Cult of Mac. I created one for scrolling up on a page and one for scrolling down. Now when I’m reading a long web page, instead of having to swipe up or down to scroll I can bring up the assistive touch overlay menu, select the new gesture from the Favorites group and tap once on the screen to scroll.
  • Typing shortcuts: under Settings, General, Keyboard you can create shortcuts for common phrases. For example, you could create a shortcut that would enable you to enter an email signature by simply typing the letters “sig” and pressing the space bar. This feature should provide a big productivity boost to anyone who has difficulty entering text on their mobile device.
  • Siri and dictation (iPhone 4S only): the new personal assistant uses voice recognition and artificial intelligence to respond to a range of user queries that can be made using everyday language rather than preset commands. The Apple website has a video that demos some of the capabilities of Siri.  One of the amazing things about Siri is that it works without any training from the user. Along with Siri, the iPhone 4S also includes an option to dictate text by tapping a microphone button on the keyboard.  The ability to use your voice to control the device can be helpful to many different types of disabilities, including those who have disabilities that make it difficult to input text. One of the things I have found especially frustrating when using VoiceOver on IOS devices is inputting text, so I hope this new dictation feature makes that easier. I will have a chance to test it out more thoroughly once I get my own iPhone 4S (currently out of stock in my area). Update: I finally got my hands on an iPhone 4 and I tried using the dictation feature with VoiceOver. It is working really well for me. I find the microphone button on the onscreen keyboard by moving my finger over it, double-tap to start dictation (as indicated by a tone) and then I double-tap with two fingers to stop it. Even better, after I’m done dictating the text, if I move the phone away from my mouth,  it automatically stops listening! I love this feature.
  • Word selection showing Define menu option.Dictionary: While it is not listed as an accessibility feature, having a system dictionary is a new feature that is great for providing additional language supports to students with learning disabilities. To use this feature, select a word and a popup will show the Define option that will allow you to look it up using the same dictionary that has been previously available only in iBooks.
  • iMessages: a new  add-on for the Messages app makes it possible to send free MMS messages to any owner of an IOS device. Many people with hearing disabilities rely on text messaging as a convenient means of communication. The iMessages will be especially helpful to those who are on a limited text messaging plan.
  • Reminders app: The new Reminders app has a simple interface that will make it a nice app for people who need help with keeping track of assignments and other tasks. On the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S, tasks can be tied to a location using the phone’s GPS capabilities. One use of this feature could be to set up a reminder for a person to take their medication when they get to a specific location, for example.
  • Airplay mirroring (iPad 2, requires an Apple TV): along with IOS 5, a recent firmware update for the Apple TV enables mirroring to a projector or TV using Airplay. I can see this option being helpful in a class where there are students in wheelchairs who have difficulty moving around the room. Using air mirroring, the teacher could bring the iPad 2 to the student and the rest of the class could still see what is displayed by the projector or TV.
The new accessibility features make IOS 5 a must-have update for anyone who has a disability, as well as for those who work with individuals with disabilities. For schools and other educational institutions, the accessibility features of IOS make Apple mobile devices an ideal choice for implementing mobile learning while complying with legal requirements such as Section 504, Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Disclosure: I am an Apple Distinguished Educator.

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.

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).