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Apple Previews Upcoming Accessibility Features

Apple has previewed some upcoming accessibility features that we’ll presumably see in this year’s updates to Apple’s operating systems. They include:

  • Door Detection: Available on iPhones and iPads with a LiDAR scanner, Door Detection tells users who are blind or low-vision where doors are, how far they are away, whether they’re opened or closed, and how you open them. Door Detection will be available in a new Detection Mode in the Magnifier app on the iPhone and iPad. (It would be a compelling feature for smart glasses.)
  • Apple Watch Mirroring: This feature replicates an Apple Watch’s display on its associated iPhone, allowing users to employ accessibility features like Voice Control and Switch Control on the Apple Watch. It will require an Apple Watch Series 6 or later.Apple Watch Mirroring
  • Quick Actions on the Apple Watch: In the category of accessibility features that might gain wider adoption in the broader community (see “iOS 14’s Back Tap Feature Provides Interaction Shortcuts,” 24 September 2020), Quick Actions on the Apple Watch enable multi-touch gestures on the little screen. For instance, you could define a double-pinch to end a phone call or start a workout.
  • Live Captions: Perhaps the most interesting of the new features, Live Captions automatically generate text transcripts for any audio content, whether a phone call, FaceTime call, videoconference, or streaming media. The subtitles are generated on the device itself, which will have to be an iPhone 11 or later, an iPad with at least an A12 Bionic chip, or an M1-based Mac. Various videoconferencing systems already do this quite successfully, and we hope that Apple can do at least as good a job. Again, there are times when subtitles would be welcome for people who are not Deaf or hard of hearing, and it’s easy to imagine a jump to automatic translation in the future. (This would also be a really interesting feature for smart glasses.)

Apple also outlined a few other upcoming accessibility features, like Buddy Controller, which lets two game controllers function as one, and new customization options for the Apple Books app. Perhaps the most welcome to English speakers will be Voice Control Spelling Mode, which lets users dictate words that Voice Control Dictation gets wrong using letter-by-letter input.

We should all appreciate Apple’s commitment to accessibility features because they make a world of difference for those who need them—which is all of us at one point or another—and because everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in society through technology. It seems likely that Apple invests vastly more time and effort into these features than it makes back in increased sales.

More generally, as we noted, many of these features stand to benefit those who nominally have no disability. Quick Actions for Apple Watch might become a favorite of power users, and lots of people will appreciate Live Captions when in loud environments or when talking with someone whose speech is hard to understand for whatever reason. Even Buddy Controller could be a boon to any parent whose child insists on playing a video game that’s beyond their physical coordination.

In an earlier version of this article, we pondered why Apple had chosen to preview these features in advance of WWDC, but we had forgotten that Apple did the same thing last year, also to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day (see “Apple Announces Upcoming Accessibility Features,” 20 May 2021).

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Comments About Apple Previews Upcoming Accessibility Features

Notable Replies

  1. Wife’s 3 year old Volvo with CarPlay can display and read text messages. Wife is in a Spanish class, and often gets texts from others in the class (in Spanish.) The Volvo used to read those with an English accent so they were often unintelligible. But the Volvo now detects that the message is in Spanish and uses a Spanish accent voice. Wife said, “The car’s Spanish is so much better than the people in my Spanish class!” :-)

  2. These all sound really good, Apple do a huge job here.

  3. Health, safety and accessibility have always been big selling points for Apple. There are so many different varieties of Android and Windows products out there, and not all of them can manage stuff that Watch, iPhone, iPad or Mac does with ease and grace. My thinking is that this announcement is setting the stage for the upcoming Developers Conference in a very few weeks.

  4. Your memory is clearly better than ours!

  5. Global Accessibility Awareness Day is May 19 (GAAD is always on third Thursday of May) but I think you’re correct about this being why they announced them when they did.

    The GAAD website lists many events happening on or around May 19. You could also treat it as Global Accessibility Action Day; if you have a website, try an automated checker like WAVE – Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool and make a plan for how to fix some of the problems it finds. If you don’t have a website, you could learn how to add text alternatives (“alt text”) to images you include in documents or post on social media (including here in Discourse’s editor). Colleagues wrote a good resource about how to write good alt text.

  6. Thanks for the steer Curtis. A few things on my sites to address for sure.

  7. I’m very conflicted. While it’s clear Apple customers value Apple’s commitment to accessibility and that Apple has and will continue to transform the lives of disabled people, empirically it’s (increasingly, perhaps) rather hard, as a user of these features, not to conclude that accessibility is most useful to Apple for generating PR rather than improving the lives of people who need and use these features. I know there are people inside Apple who do care—I know, I’ve dealt with them—but ultimately it’s a priority that too often gets pushed aside in ways that mainstream customers would find utterly unacceptable. So by all means enjoy the fuzzy wuzzies at Apple’s munificence to the disability community in adding even more (potentially life-changing, potentially pointless) features, but please also get behind us when we’re pushing Apple to meaningfully improve the QC on accessibility as well. Glaring bugs that kill productivity, provide an inadequate standard of access, or just break functionality in production software are routine enough now that red flags should be on everyone’s radar and not just confined to our little communities. An excellent essay on the state of play of assistive technology by a well-known blindness advocate can be read here. I highly recommend it.

  8. Thanks for that, Curtis. As a CPACC member, I am only realizing the frustrations our society creates for its own, whether through ignorance or simple misunderstanding. Websites, travel, homes, and even technology are still needing a major push to accessibility for all.

    On topic, I read that there is only the iPhone 12 pro/13 Pro and Max models that support LiDAR (as well as the iPadPro). Those are expensive and I wish Apple would allow integrate LiDAR in more future models that are less than $$$$. Most that have accessibility needs, don’t necessarily have deep accessible pockets.

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