Tech to help with vi­sion loss

New soft­ware, apps and tech­nol­ogy are help­ing to make com­put­ing more ac­ces­si­ble to blind and par­tially sighted peo­ple. Jonathan Parkyn re­veals the lat­est break­throughs

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Don’t let im­paired vi­sion keep you in the dark. We shed light on the soft­ware and de­vices that can help

New fea­tures in Win­dows 10

Mi­crosoft pro­vides Win­dows tools for users who are blind or have par­tial vi­sion (click Start menu, Set­tings, ‘Ease of Ac­cess’ in Win­dows 10). These were im­proved in the Fall Cre­ators Up­date (FCU), re­leased last Oc­to­ber.

The Nar­ra­tor tool, for ex­am­ple, has been up­dated with a new ‘in­put learning mode’ (press Caps Lock+1 to turn it on and off). This helps you learn what Nar­ra­tor’s key­board com­mands are with­out ac­tu­ally trig­ger­ing them. In ad­di­tion, Nar­ra­tor can now au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ate im­age de­scrip­tions, even when an im­age has no em­bed­ded text (press Caps Lock+shift+d).

Nar­ra­tor’s Scan mode – which lets you nav­i­gate us­ing sim­ple key­board short­cuts – is now en­abled by de­fault when you browse the web us­ing Mi­crosoft Edge (with Nar­ra­tor switched on). Clev­erly, it switches it­self off when you click in a box you need to en­ter text into (such as a pass­word field). Mi­crosoft pro­vides a use­ful list of all the short­cuts you can use in Scan mode at www.snipca.com/27152.

The Mag­ni­fier tool now works in tan­dem with Nar­ra­tor, au­to­mat­i­cally fol­low­ing the text that is be­ing read aloud. Fur­ther­more, the FCU added a Colour fil­ters tool to make on-screen el­e­ments clearer to see for peo­ple with colour blind­ness and light sen­si­tiv­ity. En­able this fea­ture and se­lect your fil­ter via Start menu, Set­tings, ‘Ease of Ac­cess’, then ‘Colour & high con­trast’ (see screenshot be­low left).

Fur­ther ac­ces­si­bil­ity im­prove­ments are due in Win­dows 10’s next ma­jor fea­ture up­date (due in the next few weeks), in­clud­ing a re­or­gan­ised ‘Ease of Ac­cess cen­tre’ and a colour wheel for choos­ing the most suit­able colour fil­ter.

New fea­tures for phones and tablets

Mod­ern phones and tablets come with sev­eral fea­tures for users with poor vi­sion. On Ap­ple IOS de­vices, look un­der Vi­sion in Set­tings, Gen­eral, Ac­ces­si­bil­ity. In An­droid, look un­der Set­tings, Ac­ces­si­bil­ity. Both oper­at­ing sys­tems in­clude screen read­ers, mag­ni­fiers and tools for im­prov­ing the vis­i­bil­ity of on-screen text and colours.

The lat­est version of An­droid (8.0, Oreo) makes it even eas­ier to en­able your most-used ac­ces­si­bil­ity tools – in­clud­ing Mag­ni­fier and ‘Se­lect to Speak’ – by let­ting you add a per­ma­nent short­cut (an icon of a per­son with out­stretched arms – see screenshot be­low left) in the nav­i­ga­tion bar at the bot­tom of the screen. With ‘Se­lect to Speak’, the short­cut is added by de­fault when you switch on the tool. With Mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, se­lect the ‘Mag­nify with but­ton’ op­tion.

Ap­ple’s IOS 11 in­tro­duces a range of new and en­hanced fea­tures for iphone and ipad users, in­clud­ing a Smart In­vert op­tion, which se­lec­tively in­verts the colours in ar­eas where needed, rather than across the en­tire screen. In your de­vice’s Ac­ces­si­bil­ity set­tings, tap Dis­play Ac­com­mo­da­tions, In­vert Colours, then Smart In­vert.

Ap­ple has also im­proved the way its screen reader (Voiceover) de­tects text em­bed­ded in im­ages, au­to­mat­i­cally read­ing it when Voiceover is switched on. If there’s no em­bed­ded text, IOS will scan the im­age and pro­vide you with a description. Se­lect an im­age, then tap it with three fin­gers to hear the description.

New apps for blind and par­tially sighted users

Mi­crosoft has just re­leased a new phone app called Sound­scape that’s de­signed to help par­tially sighted users nav­i­gate their sur­round­ings. It re­quires head­phones and works by cre­at­ing a 3D au­dio en­vi­ron­ment that plays sounds to help you ori­en­tate.

Set a ‘Bea­con’ (a land­mark, point of in­ter­est or other des­ti­na­tion) and the app will use your de­vice’s lo­ca­tion tool to dis­cover the Bea­con’s po­si­tion in the real world, con­vert­ing it into clicks and other noises. These help you to build a men­tal im­age of the world around you and point you in the right direc­tion. Mi­crosoft stresses that the app should be used with tra­di­tional means of nav­i­ga­tion, not on its own. Sound­scape is free for IOS de­vices ( www.snipca.com/27153), and we think an An­droid version won’t be far be­hind.

Mi­crosoft also re­cently an­nounced that it’s back­ing an­other bril­liant app for blind and vis­ually im­paired users called Be My Eyes ( www.snipca.com/27154). This app, avail­able for IOS ( www.snipca. com/27155) and An­droid ( www.snipca. com/27156), pro­vides vis­ual as­sis­tance via your phone or tablet. It works a lit­tle like a video-chat app, putting peo­ple with vi­sion loss in con­tact with sighted vol­un­teers.

Your de­vice’s cam­era shows the sighted helper what you’re look­ing at, al­low­ing them to pro­vide you with in­for­ma­tion, such as the ex­piry date on a car­ton of milk (see screenshot above). In the lat­est version of the app (1.1.4) Mi­crosoft of­fers free tech­ni­cal sup­port – just tap the new ‘Spe­cial­ized help’ but­ton, then ‘Mi­crosoft’.

New in­no­va­tive de­vices

New tech­nolo­gies aimed at as­sist­ing peo­ple with vis­ual im­pair­ments fea­tured pre­dom­i­nantly at this year’s Con­sumer Elec­tronic Show (CES), held in Jan­uary in Las Vegas. These in­cluded the Bec­dot ( https://bec-dot.com), a toy that uses NFC to help blind and par­tially sighted chil­dren learn to read braille from a young age. It was made by Beth and Jake La­course, whose daugh­ter Re­becca was born with Usher Syn­drome, a com­mon cause of blind­ness and deaf­ness. They were in­spired af­ter find­ing ex­ist­ing braille toys too ba­sic, com­plex or ex­pen­sive.

Also on show at CES were ‘vi­sion-free’ phones by Is­raeli com­pany Project Ray ( http://project-ray.com). It makes sturdy de­vices built around ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures, such as vi­bra­tions (known as ‘hap­tic’ feed­back) that oc­cur when the user car­ries out par­tic­u­lar ac­tions. Sadly, there’s no sign of a UK re­lease date for these, but An­droid users can get a taste for Ray’s tech by down­load­ing the Ray

Vi­sion Launcher (free from www.snipca. com/27157), which pro­vides a sim­pli­fied, high-con­trast in­ter­face (see screenshot above left) for your de­vice.

Some of the most in­no­va­tive prod­ucts at CES were head­sets and smart glasses aimed at users with vi­sion loss. The Or­cam My­eye 2.0 ( www.or­cam.com), for ex­am­ple, is a dis­crete cam­era that clips on to a stan­dard pair of glasses (see im­age be­low left). It reads text aloud from any sur­face and recog­nises faces, prod­ucts, ban­knote val­ues and more. The My­eye 1 is al­ready avail­able through the RNIB web store for £2,880 ( www.snipca.com/27158), though there’s cur­rently no UK launch date for the smaller, lighter new model.

Slightly more sci­ence-fic­tion is es­ight, a com­pany that makes head­sets that it claims can “let the le­gally blind see”. It works us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of high­res­o­lu­tion cam­eras, depth sen­sors, and pro­cess­ing power to cap­ture im­ages of the world around you and en­hance them, be­fore stream­ing them back – in real time – to a pair of spe­cially cal­i­brated OLED screens in front of your eyes. It’s very clever, but es­ight isn’t cheap (around £7,500). It’s now avail­able in the UK via As­so­ci­ated Op­ti­cal ( www.as­so­ci­ated op­ti­cal.com), but you’ll need to con­tact the com­pany on 01628 600410 for more in­for­ma­tion.

If you’re colour blind, make Win­dows 10 eas­ier to use by ap­ply­ing a colour fil­ter The lat­est version of An­droid adds an icon for ac­cess to Mag­ni­fier and ‘Se­lect to Speak’

The Be My Eyes app lets you ask a sighted per­son what’s writ­ten on an item Project Ray makes phones with sim­pli­fied, high-con­trast screen de­signs

The Or­cam clips on to a pair of glasses and recog­nises faces, prod­ucts and more

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