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An iPhone the Blind Can Get Behind

June 8 2009 | by

new iphone 3G S

When Apple announced a host of new features for its next-generation iPhone in March, they unveiled a few surprises, but kept the best ones under wraps. Until today, at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, Apple revealed gigantic news: its new iPhone 3G S has a built-in screen reader for people with visual impairments — bringing this group one step closer to total cell-phone accessibility.

The 3G S introduces VoiceOver for iPhone, Apple’s proprietary screen reader that speaks what appears on the iPhone display. VoiceOver lets visually impaired users make iPhone calls, read email, browse web pages, play music and run applications.

TOUCH-SCREEN TECH. VoiceOver is already built into the Mac and iPod Shuffle, but for iPhone this screen reader is a whole new ball game. Calling it the world’s first gesture-based screen reader, VoiceOver for iPhone reads aloud what is touched on the screen. Users can then gesture with a double-tap, drag, or flick to control the phone.

According to Apple, users can “interact directly with objects on the screen to more naturally understand their location and context.” Touching the upper-left corner of the screen, for example, will prompt the spoken voice to announce what’s there; as users drag their finger around the screen, they’ll learn what’s nearby, providing “a true sense of how things appear on screen, not just descriptions of what they are.”

WILL THE BLIND LIKE IT? While it sounds complicated, like any new technology it can be learned over time. While the blind community is “cautiously optimistic” until they can try out the device, according to Blind Access Journal, the new iPhone marks a huge leap by Apple to bring accessibility to blind and visually impaired users. That’s because VoiceOver for iPhone is built-in, finger-and-touch-based and fully integrated with other apps like Phone, iPod, iTunes, Mail, Safari, and Maps.

Another unexpected new feature is a hands-free, voice-control interface. By loading an app, users will be able to dictate commands to perform various tasks, such as calling a friend or playing a song in the phone’s iTunes library. Many tech experts predicted the new iPhone would include voice control, which holds obvious potential for the visually impaired as well as for sighted users, who relish being able to have hands-free, eyes-free control over their phones while driving or exercising.

…AND FOR THE DEAF. Additionally, the iPhone 3G S (the S stands for speed) includes a new universal Zoom function that magnifies the entire screen, and the White on Black feature, which reverses the colors on screen to provide higher contrast for people with low vision. iPhone 3G S also supports Mono Audio, which combines left and right audio channels so that they can be heard in both earbuds for those with hearing loss in one ear.

Overall, the iPhone 3G S (the S stands for speed) will be faster, with better graphics and longer battery life. It will come with an a video recording and editing tool and a three-megapixel camera with an autofocus feature called “tap to focus.” It also features Compass, a digital compass for instant navigation.

EASY ACTIVATION. VoiceOver for iPhone comes in 12 languages. It alerts visually impaired users to status information such as battery level, Wi-Fi and cellular network signal levels, the cellular network provider, and time of day. It can be activated through iTunes using a compatible screen reader or in the Accessibility menu. Apple is also working with iPhone software developers so they can make their applications VoiceOver compatible.

A 16GB variation of the iPhone 3G S will be available on June 19 for $199, while a 32GB variation will cost $299. Read more at Apple.

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