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★ A First Look at VoiceOver in iOS 6

Apple’s sixth major release of iOS has finally arrived. Along with the scores of new features for users of all stripes come changes and enhancements to the mobile operating system’s accessibility features, including VoiceOver.

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive list of everything that has changed in iOS 6. Instead, it should provide highlights of some of the most interesting additions and enhancements to the system’s accessibility feature set.

Although iOS 6 is available on the iPad 2, 3rd-generation iPad, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPhone 4S, as well as Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 5, not all features are available on all devices. We will try to clarify when a feature being discussed is not available on all devices.

Let’s take a look at iOS 6.### A Note On Timing

From time to time we are asked why we wait so long to publish our reviews of new iOS releases and the new features found in VoiceOver. The fact is that any users publishing information about iOS and the new VoiceOver features prior to the official release, beyond that which Apple has specifically announced, are doing so in violation of Apple’s Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), which they had to accept before gaining access to the software. We at Maccessibility believe that such violations show a lack of respect to Apple, and most especially to the developers who comprise the VoiceOver team. We, therefore, do not publish details of Apple’s products before embargoes are lifted.

Punctuating the Point

Since the dawn of accessible computing, screen reading solutions have offered various settings to control how much textual information is presented in spoken form to the user. Chief among these were the now familiar “Some”, “Most”, “All”, and “None” values for the amount of punctuation which should be explicitly detailed. Early on, there was little use in a mobile operating system for this information. As iOS has matured, however, its utility has grown. Word processing apps such as Pages have expanded the ways in which we use our mobile devices, and the time has come to add this kind of customization to VoiceOver’s settings.

The Punctuation settings have been simplified to the most common three possibilities: “Some”, “All”, and “None”. To gain access to these features, simply add the Punctuation rotor option to the VoiceOver rotor via the VoiceOver Rotor settings. Selecting “Punctuation” from the rotor and then flicking up and down will adjust the setting as needed.

The exact meaning of these settings has varied over the years between assistive tech products. What VoiceOver calls “All” punctuation is what many long-time AT users will perhaps think of as “Most”. That is to say that all punctuation marks and various other textual symbols are announced, but white space is not.

Actions

The multi-touch paradigm has brought with it the idea that many different kinds of actions can be performed on an on-screen element. Swiping, tapping, rotating, etc, can all have different results. VoiceOver provides its own gestures for the most common of these, but it would be virtually impossible to provide alternatives for every conceivable command and combination.

VoiceOver has long offered the “Pass-through” gesture which partially overrides VoiceOver’s gestures in favor of what the user is performing on-screen, but as iOS applications became more mature and capable, the pass-through gesture was insufficient to cover all cases.

One of the simplest examples of how gestures are used in iOS is in the stock Mail app. Tapping a message from the in-box list selects and opens it. Alternatively, a sighted user may swipe across the message’s entry in the list to delete it more fluidly.

In iOS 6, VoiceOver introduces “Actions”. “Actions” appear in the rotor when VoiceOver focus is on a control which accepts gestures other than the defaults, and which has been properly setup to use the new accessibility Actions feature.

The VoiceOver user can flick up and down when the “Actions” rotor option is selected and choose from the available commands. Often, the “Actions” setting of the rotor is auto-selected when it becomes available, so the user need not manually select it.

For an example of this in practice, open the Mail app and place VoiceOver focus on a message you wish to delete. Flick downward and VoiceOver will announce “Delete”. Double-tap and the message is instantly deleted. Focus will automatically move to the next message in the list, and VoiceOver will announce it automatically. Using this technique, the VoiceOver user can quickly move through and delete a large number of messages.

Essentially, the “Actions” rotor option provides a kind of menu in which commands which are usually performed by gestures can be offered to a VoiceOver user in an elegant and intuitive format.

Maps

In iOS 6, Apple has replaced the Maps app with a brand-new offering. The new implementation uses Apple’s own map data, rather than that provided by Google.

On capable devices, Maps accessibility is quite remarkable. It particularly shines on the 3rd-generation iPad, where the larger screen provides a more expansive look at the visible map for VoiceOver users.

Detailing all of the changes in the Maps application is beyond the scope of this article. We are, therefore, going to focus on the map display itself, something which hitherto has been wholly inaccessible.

In the VoiceOver rotor, users will find a “Zoom” option when a map is visible on screen. This allows for zooming in on portions of the map for more detailed examination, or zooming out for a bird’s eye view of a larger area.

Lower values for the zoom can give global, continental, or country-wide views, while higher zoom levels let you examine streets and neighborhoods. As the zoom level is changed, VoiceOver announces some of the major points of interests and/or roads/highways which are currently visible on the map.

When viewing, for instance, North America as a whole, users can explore the screen and get an idea of the locations of various major cities in relation to one another. (San Francisco on the west coast, New York on the east, St. Louis in the mid-west, and so on.) Three-finger flicks to the left, right, up, or down, will pan the view as one would expect, allowing the VoiceOver user to explore further.

When exploring an area in high detail, such as the streets of a neighborhood, VoiceOver announces the streets as you touch them, and invites you to “Pause to follow.” If you continue to touch a street, VoiceOver enters a mode which provides auditory feedback via a low thudding sound. You can continue to explore, and as long as your finger is on the road, the sound persists. If you move off of the road it stops. In this way, it is possible to follow the route of roads, streets, and highways.

VoiceOver provides spoken information about the orientation of the roads, as well as announcements of intersections as you encounter them. You may venture down intersecting roads and VoiceOver will change to following the new road fluidly.

Finally, a “Points of Interest” option in the rotor provides a way to jump through the visible points of interest on the map quickly. Depending on the zoom level of the map, this may include cities, roads, or even restaurants and landmarks.

The new Maps application is a massive leap forward for accessibility of map information. Due to their visual nature, some users may need some time to become accustom to exploring the maps and following roads with VoiceOver, but in time, this functionality will likely become indispensable for visually impaired users wishing to better understand their geographical surroundings. It may be that users who have, or have ever had, some vision may more quickly adapt to using Maps.

It’s the Little Things

As usual, users will find a myriad of small improvements and changes as they use iOS 6. A couple of these merit brief mentions.

  • In Messages, messages which contain links or other elements are treated as single items by VoiceOver, rather than being broken up into their component parts. To access a link inside a message, simply use the rotor to select “Links” and flick downward.
  • When reading a web page continuously using the VoiceOver two-finger flick down, the VoiceOver focus click auditory indicator is suppressed for elements which are contained within other elements. For example, links which are inside a block of text, such as a paragraph, are simply announced as links without triggering the focus click. This makes for a much more fluid and pleasant reading experience.

All in All

The iOS 6 update brings many enhancements to the VoiceOver experience that users are certain to appreciate. As has been, and should be, the case, the real pleasure of using the update is in the system’s new mainstream features, to which VoiceOver users have equal access.