Tag Archives: photography

3 Ways the iPhone Has Disrupted My Life for the Better

The 10th anniversary of the iPhone announcement in 2007 was mentioned on a number of podcasts I listen to this past week, and this got me into a reflective mood. I can remember vividly where I was when the announcement took place. At the time I was a graduate student at the University of South Florida, and I watched the announcement on the big screen in the iTeach Lounge where I worked as a graduate assistant.

I must admit that at first I was a bit skeptical. The first version of the iPhone was pretty expensive, and it took me a year after the launch to decide that I wanted to get in on the fun.  If I remember correctly, it cost me $399 for 8GB of storage when I bought my first iPhone from Cingular Wireless (remember them?). As cool as that first iPhone was, it took two important developments to make me a true believer.  The first one was the release of the App Store in 2008, which opened up  a world of possibilities only limited to developers’ imagination. The second was the accessibility support announced with the release of the iPhone 3GS. After my first iPhone contract with Cingular was up, I actually returned to a traditional flip phone for a little while for my next phone. Once the accessibility support was announced, though, I was locked in. I have been an iPhone owner ever since.

In addition to the App Store and the built-in accessibility support, there are three other important ways in which the iPhone has disrupted my life in significant ways that go beyond just being able to have access to information and communication on the go.

A Better Set of Eyes

The iPhone couldn’t have come at a better time for me. At the time, my vision loss was getting the point where using a traditional DSLR camera was becoming harder and harder. As I detailed in an article for the National Federation of the Blind’s Future Reflections magazine, the built-in accessibility features of the iPhone have allowed me to continue with my passion for capturing the beauty in the world around me. The way I see it, the iPhone is now “a better set of eyes” for me. Most of the time, I can’t be sure that I have actually captured a decent image when I aim the phone at a scene. It is not until later, when I am reviewing the images more carefully at home, that I notice small details I didn’t even know were in the frame. You can see some examples of my photography on my Instagram page.

Instagram collage showing best nine images of 2016.

Going forward, this idea of the iPhone as my “best set of eyes” is going to be important to me beyond photography. As my vision loss progresses, I will be able to rely on the iPhone’s ever improving camera to recognize currency, capture and read aloud the text in menus, business cards and more, and tell me if my clothes are exactly the color I intended. I have no doubt that “computer vision” will continue to get better and this gives me hope for the future. Already, the VoiceOver screen reader can recognize some objects in your images and describe them aloud. This technology was developed to make searching through large image libraries more efficient, but it will be helpful to people with visual impairments like me as well.

Independence at the Touch of a Button

The second major way the iPhone has disrupted my life for the better is by giving me back my independence in a big way, through apps such as Uber and Lyft. Now, I know you can use these apps on other smartphones, so they are not exclusive to the iPhone. However, when you really think about it, no iPhone means no App Store. No App Store means there is no incentive for other companies to copy what Apple did.

Uber has replaced the many frustrations I had with public transportation (lateness, high taxi fares) with a much more convenient and less expensive solution. Yes, I know some of my blind friends have had a number of issues with Uber (such as outright discrimination from drivers who are not comfortable with a guide dog in their vehicles), but this would probably happen with taxicabs too.

My own experience with Uber has been mostly positive, and the service allows me to easily get to doctor’s appointments, and provides me with a reliable way to get to the airport so that I can do my work of spreading the message of accessibility and inclusive design for education to a broader audience beyond my local area. Uber and Lyft, and the iPhone as the platform that made them possible, have really opened up the world to me.

Can You Hear Me Now?

One of the big trends at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year was the presence of Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, on all kinds of consumer appliances. Alexa joins Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Assistant in heralding a future where voice and speech recognition replace the mouse and the touch screen as the primary input methods for our computing devices. We are not quite there yet, but the accuracy of these services will continue to improve and I am already seeing the potential with some of the home automation functions that are possible with the existing implementations (having my lights be automatically turned on when I arrive at home, for example).

Here, again, the iPhone deserves quite a bit of credit. The release of Siri as part of the iPhone 4S in 2011 brought the idea of speech recognition and voice control to the mainstream. Previously, its use was limited mostly to individuals with motor difficulties or niche markets like the medical and legal transcription fields. Siri helped popularize this method of voice interaction and made it more user friendly (remember when you had to sit for several minutes training speech recognition software to recognize just your voice?).

Looking Ahead

The smartphone is a mature technology and some have questioned whether it has reached its apex and will soon give way to other options for content consumption and communication. One possibility would involve virtual, augmented or even mixed reality. Given the visual nature of AR and VR this gives me some cause for concern just like I had at the release of the iPhone back in 2007. However, just like Apple took a slab of glass and made it accessible when few people thought it could, with some creativity we can make AR and VR accessible too.

We have come a long way in just 10 years (sometimes I find it hard to remember that it has only been that long). In that time, Apple has shown that “inclusion promotes innovation.”  Accessible touch screens, voice controlled assistants, ride sharing services, are just a few of the innovations that have developed within an accessible ecosystem started with the iPhone. Thank you Apple, and congrats on the 10th anniversary of iPhone.Here’s to the next 10, 20 or 30 years of innovation and inclusion.

 

 

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A Visually Impaired Photographer Experiments with the GoPro

As many of you who follow me online know, I am very passionate about photography and the possibilities it presents to us as people with disabilities to tell our own stories and exercise our creativity. I love to use my iPhone to take photos because it incorporates so many accessibility features that help me with my photography, such as Zoom, VoiceOver and Invert Colors. However, I am always looking for new options to expand my photographic horizons and the Go Pro action camera is one such option that has fascinated me for some time. I believe that just because you have a disability it doesn’t mean you should not be able to ski, sky dive, or do anything else you set your mind to doing, and the Go Pro has become the go-to camera when it comes to action sports and an active lifestyle.

I started out with the  least expensive option in the GoPro lineup, the new entry-level Hero which retails for $129.  However, after about a week with the camera, I returned it and opted for the older Hero 3 white model, which is think is a better fit for my needs. The new entry-level Hero has a number of shortcomings due to its low price and limited feature set. However, if you’re an educator looking for an inexpensive camera for recording classroom activities (science experiments, plays and performances, etc) this is a nice camera and there are ways to get around its limitations:

  • it does not have an LCD screen for framing shots and adjusting camera settings like the more expensive Go Pro 4 Silver. I don’t think this is  a significant drawback, since use of  the LCD screen outdoors would be difficult anyway due to glare. The camera’s wide field of view makes it likely that you will capture the shot you want even when you can’t frame it with a viewfinder. For someone who has tunnel vision, the wide FOV is actually one of the things that made the Go Pro so attractive to me. Go Pro does sell an add-on LCD screen but I’m not sure if it is supported on the new Hero. Regardless, using the add-on screen will probably lead to reduced battery life.
  • it does not support Wifi connectivity. With other Go Pro cameras (like the Hero 3 White I eventually traded up to), you can set up a Wifi connection between the camera and a smartphone to control the camera and see what you are capturing. However, as with the addition of an add-on LCD screen, a drawback to Wifi connectivity is that it drains the battery much faster.
  • it has a built-in battery that cannot be replaced or swapped out to extend the length of time the camera can be used in the field.  A workaround for this is to use any of a number of smartphone or tablet external batteries that matches the needs of the Go Pro (5V and 1-1.5 amps). The external battery will allow you to capture longer time lapse photos where the camera has to be turned on for extended periods of time. I was also fortunate to find an old power adapter for a Kodak zi8 camera that  allows me to plug in the Go Pro to a wall outlet to charge it much faster than through the USB port on a computer.
  • it does not support the higher resolutions of more expensive Go Pro cameras. The Hero tops out at 1080p (30 fps)  and also supports 720p at 30 or 60 fps. It does not support 4K, which is fine by me as the higher resolutions result in huge files I can’t possibly store or process on my Macbook Air.

Despite its limitations, I still think the new Go Pro Hero is a  nice entry level camera for use in educational settings. It provides access to the many possibilities for using this type of camera to support learning (examples of which are featured on this website by Lisa Tossey) but at a very reasonable price. However, from an accessibility perspective, the biggest problem is not the lack of an LCD viewfinder with features such as large text or a high contrast mode. Rather it is the fact that there is not an option to set up spoken feedback other than a series of beeps as you advance through the various menu screens which are displayed in a small window on the front of the camera. If the camera had Wifi connectivity I could probably use VoiceOver and other accessibility features on my iPhone to get better access to the camera menus and settings.

This possibility convinced me to exchange the Hero for the older Hero 3 White, which does support Wifi. I was able to download the free Go Pro app from the App Store and it has some VoiceOver compatibility.  I’m convinced that with a few tweaks this app could be made very accessible to the blind. For the most part the  buttons have VoiceOver labels that can be spoken aloud to a blind user, but these labels could be improved so that they are clearer and easier to understand when read aloud.  For example, I don’t need to hear the following when I choose the option for reviewing the clips on my camera: GoPro app, list view icon, cam roll. Just describing it as Camera Roll would be sufficient. Surprisingly, the shutter release button is the only button or control with no label at all (it just says “button”). In any case, through the Wifi connection I will still be able to use Zoom and other accessibility features on my iPhone even if the app does not have great VoiceOver support.

With the Hero 3 White I lose the following  features which are only available in the current generation cameras: Quick Capture, Super Wide Capture and Auto Low Light. Quick Capture allows the capture of video with a single tap of the top button and time lapse with an extended press, while Super Wide extends the FOV slightly and Auto Low Light gives the camera better dynamic range in low light situations. Of these three features only Super Wide would be significantly helpful to me. I don’t shoot in the kinds of environments where Auto Low Light would come in handy (due to my difficulties with navigating low-light environments) and Quick Capture is a nice-to-have but not an essential feature.

The Hero 3 White also has a slightly lower top frame rate for photos, topping out at 3fps as compared to 5fps for the new Hero, as well as a smaller capacity battery.  However, I can compensate for the smaller capacity battery by purchasing a number of inexpensive add-on batteries (retailing for $15-20 each) which the Hero 3 White supports but the new Hero does not. The swappable batteries would make up somewhat for the battery drain resulting from the use of the camera with a Wifi connection to my iPhone for accessibility support.

Along with the Wifi connectivity, the Hero 3 White also has support for an HDMI port (for connecting the camera to a HD TV), the ability to connect an external microphone for improved audio (using an adapter), support for  higher capacity memory cards (topping out at 64GB as opposed to 32GB with the new Hero) and again,  swappable batteries. The Hero 3 White has more customizable time-lapse settings, allowing for intervals from half a second to a full 60 seconds. The new Hero on the other hand is set to a single interval of half a second. Both cameras are very similar in terms of mounting options and underwater performance (with a top depth of 131 feet in each case).

I have had great fun with the  Go Pro cameras during the short time I have owned them, and I really think the Hero 3 White will be a better action camera for me than the entry-level Hero (at least until I can get one of the higher priced models like the Go Pro 4 Silver). I end this post with this photo I took with my new GoPro during a recent visit to the beach.

Go Pro selfie taken at the beach in St. Petersburg, Florida.

 

iPhoto App and Accessibility

This weekend I finally had a chance to try out the new iPhoto app Apple released along with iPad 3 (or as they are calling it “the new iPad.”) As an aspiring photographer I was impressed with the many options for organizing, editing, and sharing photos Apple has packed into this app which only costs $4.99 in the App Store. There have been many reviews of the new app posted online already, so I will not add another one here. However, I do have a unique perspective on the new app that I would like to share. Not only do I like to take photos (calling myself a photographer might be a stretch but it’s a hobby I enjoy and continue to try to get better at every day), but I also have a visual disability so I am part of a small community of blind photographers.

When I opened the iPhoto app on my iPhone, the first thing I did was turn on the VoiceOver built-in screen reader to hear how it would do with the new photo editing app. Frankly, I was not surprised that the new iPhoto app would be as accessible with VoiceOver as it is. I have come to expect accessible products from Apple over last few years, and I’m proud to be associated with it as an Apple Distinguished Educator. However, as I dug deeper into the iPhoto app with VoiceOver, the level of attention to detail in providing accessibility was still pretty impressive. For example, the brushes used to retouch photos (repair, lighten, darken, etc) are all accessible through VoiceOver gestures, as are the exposure and color correction controls and the various effects, . When I selected the crop tool, VoiceOver told me to pinch to resize the photo and as I did so it told me how much as I was zooming in as well as how far the image was offset (“image scaled to 15X, image offest by 15% x and 48% y).

On the iPad, there is a dedicated help button that opens up a series of overlays indicating what each button does. Not only was every part of the overlay accessible, but so is the entire help built into the iPad version of the app. The attention to detail is more impressive to me because there are so few blind photographers who would take advantage of an app such as iPhoto. What it does show is the level of commitment Apple has to accessibility, because it will go to great lengths to add accessibility even when only a few people will benefit from it.

In a recent blog post, accessibility advocate Joe Clark called out a number of hot new apps (Readability, Clear, Path, and Flipboard) for what he called irresponsible web development that results in accessibility barriers. Well, to me this new iPhoto app shows that you can design an app that is not only visually appealing, feature-packed and easy to use and learn, but also accessible to people with visual disabilities. I hope more developers start to realize that accessibility does not have to compete with good design, but that both complement each other.

When I first loaded the iPhoto app on my iPhone (that was the first device I installed the app on) I was too impatient to go on the Web and read about the app before I started to work with it. That’s just the kind of user I am, I like to get right in and try things out. Well, on the iPhone app the Help button from the iPad version of the app is missing. Most of the icons make sense, but in some cases I was unsure, so what I did was turn on VoiceOver and move my finger around the screen to have it announce what each button was for (or to at least give me a better idea). In that case, compatibility with VoiceOver helped me learn the app much faster without having to consult the help, and that got me to thinking. As these devices (phones, tablets, and whatever comes next) continue to get smaller and the interfaces start to use more visuals (tiles, buttons, etc.) and less text, the ability to hear the help may become an essential aspect of learning how to use the interface. In this way, features like VoiceOver would actually enhance the usability of a particular app for everyone – what universal design is all about.

 

2012: The Year I Quit Photography?

Well, not quite. But it will definitely be the year I make a major transition in my photography. As I will explain below, 2012 will be the year that I begin to take most of my photos with my iPhone. Since I purchased my iPhone 4S this fall, I’ve been using it more and more as a replacement for my Nikon D3100 DSLR camera. The improved camera specs of the iPhone 4S (8 megapixels at F2.8), along with the new features in IOS 5 (such as quick access to the Camera app from the home screen, the ability to use the volume up button to take a photo and VoiceOver compatibility) make the iPhone the ideal device to “capture the moment” for someone like me.  As Chase Jarvis has stated, it is the camera that’s always with you, always at the ready to document those fleeting moments in life.

However, it’s not only the convenience and ease of use of the iPhone that’s drawing me away from using a traditional camera to capture images. As most of you reading this know, I have a visual impairment and I’m slowly losing my vision to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, or RP for short. At the moment, I have less than 10 degrees of vision left (less than 20 degrees qualifies you as being legally blind). RP leads to progressive vision loss starting with peripheral and low light vision. In my case, my low light vision is what has been most affected by my RP, but the usual closing in of the field of the vision is also there.

I’ve been lucky that my progression with vision loss has been pretty slow, but the last few times I’ve gone out to shoot with my camera, I’ve noticed some changes in my remaining eyesight. It’s ironic that it is photography that is helping me judge these changes in my vision. I’m not sure if these changes are really there or if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. Much of what I’ve read about RP states that people with the condition lose most of their peripheral vision around the age of 40, and guess what, I turn 40 in a few days. So, maybe it’s all in my mind, but the last few times I’ve gone out with my camera I’ve ended up with some major eye fatigue and pain afterwards. I think what’s happening is that since I can’t see that much of the frame through the viewfinder, I’m having to move my eyes a lot to make sure I have framed the shot properly. All of this eye movement is probably fatiguing my eye muscles, so that when I get home I have pain in my eyes and the area around them. It usually takes a few doses of pain relief medicine and some warm compresses for the eye pain to subside, and I would rather avoid it if at all possible.

I love photography, and I would hate to give it up. However, when I got into this hobby I knew that the day would eventually come when my vision loss would make photography really difficult. I have no regrets for having spent a considerable amount of money on my DSLR and my lenses and other accessories over the last couple of years. I would not give up the joy that the hobby has brought me over that time. My photography has allowed me to experience a lot of beauty around me that I would normally miss with my own eyes (the camera has a far better range of vision than my own eyes). I also saw photography as a challenge, not only for myself but also for all of us who have visual impairments. I have always enjoyed the expression on people’s faces (when I can see them) when I step up to a spot with my white cane and pull out a camera to take a photo. I know they look, and I know they probably ask themselves “wait, isn’t he blind, why is he taking a photo?” If I have forced anybody to confront their preconceived ideas of the meaning of blindness and disability, then it has been all worth it to me. I can continue to make a similar statement through my use of the iPhone as a video and still camera.

So the thought that has been on my mind for the last few days of 2011 and the first few of 2012 is, where do I go from here? Well, I would say that for 95-99% of the time I will be using the iPhone to take photos. The large, bright, sharp display on the device will make it easier for me to frame shots without having to stress my eyes as much. I also plan to use a trick I recently learned that makes it easier to take a photo by pressing the center button on the Apple headphones. I’ve looked at other options, but for now the iPhone appears to be the best one for me. The wide selection of apps with filters also means that even if I don’t quite get a picture right, I can apply a few filters and turn my failures into “creative experiments.” In some ways, I find not having to know so much about my camera sort of freeing, in that I can now focus on getting the best composition and less on what my camera is doing. In some ways, that’s exciting.

My DSLR camera does have a LiveView mode that allows you to use the LCD screen to frame a shot, but that mode is very slow (defeating the purpose of having a DSLR) and it is difficult to get sharp photos if you’re not using a tripod. Having said that, I have no plans to sell my camera and lenses. I could still use the LiveView mode for recording the videos I use in my tutorials on mobilelearning4specialneeds (after all, video is the reason that mode is in the camera in the first place). I could also use the camera for some brief shoots in a favorable lighting conditions. Limiting my time using the viewfinder will be the key, as will be making sure I take frequent breaks to let my eyes rest in between shots. At the very least, I will keep my camera and lenses as a nice present for my daughter when she gets older (though I’m sure there will be much better technology for her to choose from at that time).

I’m so grateful to Apple for taking the iPhone in the direction that it has by making it such as great portable camera (it is now surpassing traditional point and shoot cameras in the number of uploads on Flickr, one of the most popular photo sharing sites). Without the iPhone 4S, I think 2012 really would be the year I end my journey as a photographer. The way I see it, without digital I would have never gotten into photography in the first place (too costly considering the number of photos I have to take for a few good ones to turn out), and without the iPhone I would not be able to now continue in the hobby. It has been a beautiful journey with its usual ups and downs (times when I have gotten really frustrated when I couldn’t take the photos I wanted to, either because of my lack of technical expertise or the limitations of my eyesight), but I wouldn’t change a thing. There is a saying well known to those who follow Apple, “here’s to the crazy ones.” Well, I guess photography helped me see myself as one of those crazy ones who can change the world one small step at a time. It is crazy for someone with my kind of visual impairment to invest the money and time I have in pursuing a hobby like photography, but I hope that my crazyness has inspired somebody else to take on their own crazy adventure into whatever hobby fills them with joy and passion.

This long blog post is really the inspiration for the video I submitted for my application to the 2012 ADE Global Institue in Cork, Ireland, which is available below: