Apple has previewed a raft of new vision, hearing and mobility features to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Most are due for release by the end of the year.
One is Personal Voice, which allows you to create a synthetic version of your voice, that sounds like you, in as little as 15 minutes.
Developed in partnership with US non-profit Team Geason, it’s designed for people diagnosed with a condition like Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or who otherwise know there’s a risk they’ll lose their ability to speak over time.
“The voice cloning feature is a wonderful addition,” Wellington-based accessibility advocate Jonathan Mosen told the Herald.
“Imagine how differently we would remember Stephen Hawking if he had been able to communicate with the world using a sample of his real voice, rather than something synthetic. Our voices are unique and so personal to us.”
Mosen, who hosts the Living Blindfully podcast, and works days as the CEO of employment agency Workbridge, also gives Personal Voice dibs for privacy. “An individual’s voice will remain on their device and will not even be associated with their Apple ID,” he notes.
“What also interests me about this feature is that it is a glimpse of how Apple is responding to the current AI buzz,” he adds.
Another new feature, Point and Speak, lets a blind or low-vision user interact with an object with text labels.
They could, for example, point their iPhone at a microwave oven’s control panel. Using its camera and Lidar (light detection and ranging) scanner, the handset can then tell them which button is which, and where it’s located.
“As a blind person, I’m particularly interested in Point and Speak,” Mosen says.
“If it works as advertised, it’ll be a game-changer. It’s easy enough to obtain assistance to label your own appliances in an accessible way, but using other people’s appliances can be very difficult if you don’t know what the buttons do.”
Point and Speak is built into the Magnifier app on iPhone and iPad, and works great with VoiceOver - an enhanced version of iOS’s usual voice controls that includes control gestures. Point and Speak can be used with other Magnifier features, including Image Descriptions, People Detection and Door Detection (which can read symbols on a door to, for example, tell you if you’re standing in front of a male, female or gender-neutral toilet).
Door Detection was first previewed on Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2022. How has it worked out for Mosen in real life?
Mosen doesn’t carry water for Apple. He notes that Lidar, first introduced to the iPhone with the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max in 2020, is only available on the “Pro” models of the iPhone and iPad, “which may be cost-prohibitive for many”. It doesn’t help that Apple’s hardware holds up so well in the second-hand market (on Trade Me, an iPhone 12 Pro can easily go for $800 or more). He’s also annoyed by the length of time it’s taken for some bug fixes to emerge.
But overall he’s very impressed.
“It’s always heartening for the disability community - which is often left until last - to be first where Apple is concerned,” he says.
“Over the last few years, they’ve used Global Accessibility Awareness Day to signal some features in their next operating systems, and this is often the first official word we get from Apple on any next-generation OS features.”
He adds: “Accessibility features often have wider benefits than many people think. Not only is the new assistive access feature great for people with intellectual impairments, but it can also help older people with dementia who were once able to use their devices but now need a less perplexing interface. It might help such people stay in touch with family and friends.”
Mosen isn’t as impressed - at least not anymore - with Twitter under Elon Musk’s ownership.
“I’ve defected to Mastodon after Elon fired the entire accessibility team and then disabled most of the clients that made Twitter easy for blind people to use. Mastodon is such a good experience,” he says.
While all social platforms have been trimming staff, they haven’t cut into accessibility teams, or features, from what Mosen’s seen.
“Meta is still doing well. And the accessibility culture on Mastodon is quite extraordinary. I have never felt so valued on any social media platform,” he says.