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Apple unveils Spoken Interface for blind OS X users

By Peter Cohen
March 17, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Macworld - 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

Reprinted with permission from Macworld.com. Story copyright 2012 Mac Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.
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