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.”