Tag Archives: Accessible Apps

A Week with Be My Eyes: The First Truly Social Network

On May 11 from 5:00 t0 7:00 p.m., LightHouse will host Be My Eyes and its blind or low vision users for an evening of creative use, feedback and even a bit of friendly competition. The Be My Eyes team will take blind users through the past, present and future of the technology, and share some incredible stories about the iPhone app that connects blind people to a network of sighted volunteers via live video chat. The event is free and intended for blind and low vision users – RSVP on Facebook.

We love our independence. Even if our vegetables are grown and picked by hundreds of hands, our cars designed by teams of closely collaborating engineers, and everything from our electricity to our government benefits kept running by vast networks of individuals — modern day technology and consumption are designed to make us feel self sufficient.

We are thus allowed to hold ourselves ideals of self-determination and rugged individualism that have been passed down over the centuries. As blind people, these values are challenged every day of our lives. When something is poorly designed or downright unusable, we confront a deep conundrum: going it alone or asking for help, and risking the perceived possibility of burdening others.

When Be My Eyes launched nearly two years ago, a new tool was born: a radically different way to ask for help. Be My Eyes introduced blind smartphone users to a whole new type of social support network, one unbounded by geography, bureaucracy, or even practical limitations, that allowed blind users to get sighted assistance via video chat.

Today there are about half a million sighted volunteers with Be My Eyes loaded onto their phones, with more than 30,000 blind users on the other end. These volunteers will do anything from help you adjust the thermostat to spending half an hour helping you pick out an outfit for a high-stakes presentation. But at it’s core, each interaction is random, at-will and obligation free. The free app puts no limit on the number of calls you can make in a day. If you really wanted to, you could call 100 different people and have each of them identify the exact same piece of art – and the service, as always, would be free.

Even though thousands of blind people benefit from this app every week, the platform can handle thousands more. I wonder often if our notion of independent living so engrained, so hard-wired that we have still have trouble asking for help, even when there are really no strings attached.

Be My Eyes is working toward a gold-standard for people helping people. They have hundreds of thousands of hours of free labor, given with good faith, at a moments notice from people all around the world. It’s truly a new tool – like a fishing pole that reels in assistance whenever you want it. But as the old saying goes, you have to “teach a man to fish” before he can really benefit from the tools at hand.

Last month, I challenged myself to re-consider how I use the app. Occasionally I will be somewhere, alone, and realize that I am struggling. We all do this, sighted and blind alike: make things harder for ourselves then they need to be.

For one week, I told myself, any time I needed help I would pull out the app and give it a spin. What came out of it was surprising. Watch the video below to see Be My Eyes in action.

Not only did I use it for things I never thought it could work for – like identifying house numbers as I walked through a neighborhood or even the types of fish on my sushi plate – but I met people who were patient, not overbearing, and curious as to what they could do to be helpful without being obtrusive.

No one asked me personal questions, no one tried to coach me on how to live my life, and above all no one grabbed me by the arm and steered me somewhere I didn’t want to go. When I got what I needed, I could politely say thank you and hang up without fear that being brisk with someone would have repercussions later. It’s all the value of having someone nearby without any of the additional worry of initiating contact, explaining yourself, and ultimately breaking free of their of custody.

Our understanding of “independence” is not truly about total independence, but instead about masking the assembly line of helpers which make up our lives: the tiny little micro-transactions where individuals step in to provide assistance, whether or not we have a disability. For blind people, this is a more obvious reality than for most.

The reason Be My Eyes is so remarkable is because it embraces this reality wholesale: You can get the tiniest bit of help and move on through your life. The safety net is huge, and yet doesn’t loom over you.

Maybe it makes sense, then, that the guys behind Be My Eyes hail from Denmark, where you’re much more likely to hear about a more “social” approach. And if we think of human interaction as give and take, as an exchange of ideas or assistance as a true social interaction – maybe Be My Eyes has created the first truly social network.

Every Pixar Film Is Now Accessible with Mobile Audio Description from Disney

Sixteen Disney Pixar titles now available with mobile audio description for the blind

Audio Description — the extra audio track that narrates film action for people who are blind or have low vision — has been around for decades, but even if you’re blind, you might not use it. Why? Ironically, often the problem with audio description is not really the audio description. The problem is in how AD is delivered — or rather, not delivered. For years, the LightHouse has heard and advocated for blind filmgoers who simply aren’t able to pay for their movie and enjoy it in the format of their choice. If you’re blind at the movies, you know about the broken receivers, the strange formats, poor public education and training, and the many other intervening factors that have continually stymied AD availability across movie theaters and in-home systems, ultimately stonewalling the blind film-watching experience.

Starting today, that’s changing. With a new, major update to the Disney Movies Anywhere app, you can now take control of your own personal audio descriptive track, on your own smartphone, on your own terms.

This brand new, free, mobile audio description from Disney Movies Anywhere is smart and user-friendly; it listens and syncs automatically with their films (starting with the sixteen classic Disney•Pixar titles), including today’s home release of The Good Dinosaur. In accomplishing this, Disney•Pixar is leading the way for accessible films; and soon, we at the LightHouse are confident that this mobile Audio Description experience will be possible for all movies, everywhere.

Disney Movies Anywhere - click to download from iTunesA project that originated at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville and was taken on by the engineers at Disney, this new accessibility system using an app and a smartphone to access audio description is not only a passion project for the good folks at these companies, but Pixar and Disney have seen to it that key members of the blindness community have been given a chance to provide early and influential developmental feedback every step of the way. In this regard, the LightHouse has contributed feedback, tested for quality assurance, and now we’re proud to help spread the word.

At an event at Pixar in December, part of an unprecedented and ongoing collaboration between LightHouse for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs for the Blind, we invited nearly 200 blind people from organizations all around the Bay Area to download the app to their iPhones and iPads and test out the technology at a private, red carpet screening of The Good Dinosaur. The response was universal acclaim. The app’s beta version worked seamlessly. People both blind and sighted left the event joyously; celebrating the idea of being able to go back to the movie theater or watch a movie in their homes exactly the way they want.

How Does It Work?

It’s incredibly simple. If you already have a Pixar film that you’d like to watch with audio description, all you have to do is go to the app store and download the Disney Movies Anywhere app. When your movie starts playing (on a separate device or television), open up the app and locate the film. Then click “sync and play audio,” and the rest is done for you. Note that currently this works only for those running iOS 7 or later, with more platforms to come.

For more detailed instructions, visit Disney’s website, or download this special fact sheet to get you started.

What’s Next

More access audio description! This not only means Disney•Pixar is making their movies more personally accessible, but will require the participation of other film studios and distributors to help the blindness community promote accessible movie systems that work and are controlled by the user.

Just because Disney is the first movie studio to take the delivery method of audio description seriously, doesn’t mean it’ll be the only one. There are 285 million visually impaired people in the world — that’s 285 million people who, if given an accessible way to enjoy great movies, would be fans and customers for life.

This spring, we’ll be introducing mainstream audiences to this and other great new accessible technologies at a number of conferences, starting with a special LightHouse panel at SXSW on March 15. More on that soon, so stay tuned.

How Can I Help?

The best thing you can do is spread the word and send us feedback. There are lots of blind people out there who don’t think audio description is for them, many because they’ve never had a positive, easy experience getting it set up and calibrated. With these barriers gone, Pixar’s sixteen world-class titles are now accessible in a whole new way.

The LightHouse knows that nothing comes out perfectly the first time, and we’re already hard at work identifying new kinks and challenges in this brand new technology to make sure that the next version of the app is even better. To this tune, our friends at Pixar have set up a special feedback email address so that you can sound off with your comments, observations and helpful feedback. Just send an email to dmaappfeedback@pixar.com.

To contact us for inquiries about this or any of LightHouse for the Blind’s many technology initiatives, email press@lighthouse-sf.org.

App Report: Voice Dream Founder Winston Chen Explores New Frontiers in Accessible Design

Voice Dream Writer logo

Apple has always been on the leading edge of accessibility design, and as most blind people know, the iPhone and App paradigm has dramatically sped up the rate of accessible software development. There are many developers who still don’t understand the mantras of accessible software engineering, but thankfully, there are many that do. As of late, Apple has made a special effort to highlight apps that make particularly effective use of VoiceOver, and in turn we’ll be highlighting the developers who are making strides for blind design here on the LightHouse blog. Today, we have an exclusive interview with the founder and iOS engineer behind Voice Dream Reader, and now the new Voice Dream Writer.

Winston Chen wanted to start over. After serving as a big data CTO for ten years, he wanted to try something new, but he didn’t know what. So he did what any reasonable person would do, and moved his family to a small island north of the Arctic circle. At first it was warm and pleasant; he relaxed, learned how to fish, hiked, and spent time with his family. Then it got cold, and suddenly the great outdoors weren’t as welcoming. So he decided to write an app.

Voice Dream Reader is now one of the best-used reader apps in the blindness world — it’s straightforward, efficient interface has won the hearts of many blind and low vision folks, some of whom had all but sworn off “books” altogether. Its integration with Bookshare, Dropbox, Gutenberg and ability to import PDFs and web pages alike eliminates the pain of switching between platforms, Chen, in concert with one other developer who now builds Voice Dream for Android, has spent the last few years building the application into the go-to reading software, not only for the blind, but for those with learning disabilities, long commutes, and as of late those with a love for speed-reading. And now, with this year’s release of Voice Dream Writer, Chen is taking advantage of iOS devices’ new gestural options to make the reading and writing experience more productive than ever.

“3D Touch,” the newest gestural rollout from Apple, allows a new level of subtlety when it comes to touch-screen operation. Now able to tell the different between a soft and “hard” push, 3D touch promises to reduce lots of unnecessary finger-tapping that VoiceOver users are familiar with. In particular, Chen is implementing the new “peek and pop” feature, which allows users to preview a document or set of actions, and then choose to open or not open the file, literally without lifting a finger.

“I think in the end it’s all about efficiency,” said Chen over the phone this week. detailing what sets apart Voice Dream Writer from other accessible apps “You can find out where the cursor is, move it precisely where you want it to go. The other thing is proofreading — it uses all the Voice Dream voices to read. And you can set a bunch of different rules for how it proofreads for you: should it read punctuation, should it read spaces between the word, the stuff you generally wouldn’t catch if you were using VoiceOver.”

Though Chen got the idea for Writer after hearing his blind friends complain about how hard it was to word process on an iPad or iPhone, much like Reader he also sees Writer as an appealing tool for the sighted — an idea he got when he saw some author friends using text-to-speech to proofread their manuscripts. “I got this inkling that there’s a role for speech in the writing process.” Chen even claims that he himself as sighted is more comfortable proofreading using speech. It’s also a less bulky option than lugging around a computer just for its word processing engine. “I have one blind friend — I thought this was so cool: he was on a flight; he kept his iPhone in his pocket, and he had his bluetooth keyboard on his lap, and he was writing, with just the keyboard! He must have looked crazy.”

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