Apple unveils Spoken Interface for blind OS X users

Apple Computer Inc. has introduced a new accessibility solution for visually impaired users that it will integrate with the next major release of Mac OS X. The company took the wraps off of the new technology today: It's called Spoken Interface for Mac OS X. MacCentral recently spoke with Mike Shebanek, Apple product manager for Mac OS X, about the software.

Spoken Interface provides a combination of speech, audible cues and keyboard navigation to help blind users navigate Mac OS X with the same ease of use as sighted users. It offers access to the Dock, menu items, tool bars, palettes and other on-screen objects, pressing buttons, activating sliders and checkboxes, selecting radio buttons and using all the other interface elements of Mac OS X and its applications.

"Apple has a long history of working on solutions for accessibility straight back through the Apple II," Shebanek said.

The company already offers a "Universal Access" system preference pane built into Mac OS X, which enables users with sight, hearing and motor problems to more easily and effectively use a Mac.

Third-party applications have also long been available to assist Mac users. There's a category of software applications called screen readers that attempt to "speak" what's going on on the screen, handy for people who are functionally blind -- but those applications have, by and large, not migrated to Mac OS X.

Apple's solution to the problem is Spoken Interface, which Apple says is a more effective solution than a third-party application.

"Those apps have been after-the-fact solutions," Shebanek said. "They've always been bolted on to the operating system by third parties and have had to play catchup when changes are made. Apple is building this into the operating system instead."

Spoken Interface is being released now as a preview version -- by filling out a form on the Spoken Interface Web site, users can gain access to a preview release build, Shebanek said. When Apple releases its next major revision to Mac OS X, Spoken Interface will be included.

The preview release will also feature applications that have been enhanced for Spoken Interface accessibility, including Safari, Mail, TextEdit and system preferences. Shebanek said third-party support for Spoken Interface is a relatively simple proposition, as well.

"If (developers) have been using the Cocoa frameworks to develop their applications, they're about 90% of the way there already," Shebanek said.

Apple has been working on a special accessibility application programming interface (API) that was introduced with the Panther introduction at WWDC 2003. Shebanek said that Apple has been telling developers to use the technology since then.

Because Spoken Interface is built in to the operating system, it won't require users to install anything separately when it's released in its final form. And it provides a single set of key-commands to use to provide a unified, consistent user interface.

Shebanek said that Spoken Interface utilizes the F1 through F4 keys on the keyboard as "orientation keys." Pressing them will describe to the user where in the interface they are and what they're doing. An integrated help system and a contextual menu system provide further access and information.

Spoken Interface also integrates with Mac OS X's existing Universal Access capabilities, so users who are already dependent on those functions don't need to relearn how they work.

Spoken Interface uses Mac OS X's built-in text-to-speech capabilities to describe much of what's going on. Visually impaired users can often listen to speech at a much faster rate than normally sighted users, so Apple has retuned the voices in its text-to-speech technology to be more clear at a faster rate.

"Apple has listened to its customers with Spoken Interface for Mac OS X," said Shebanek. "We knew we could do a great job on this, and develop something that our customers would expect for the Mac platform."

This story, "Apple unveils Spoken Interface for blind OS X users" was originally published by MacCentral.

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