At a Glance
The big announcements from Apple today gave us what rumors had suggested: the iPhone 6, available in two screen sizes, an Apple Watch, and apple Pay, a way to pay for things using just your iPhone or Apple Watch.
This blog will highlight the major features of Apple's new devices and services, and offer my thoughts on how they might be useful to the blind and visually impaired community. Spoiler alert: holy Apples, will they be useful! You might also enjoy this blog discussing the wider accessibility implications of today's Apple announcements.
Remember that all suppositions are just that; we have no users to test anything, no hard data, nothing except what Apple said and what I think of it. Keep watching AppleVis in the coming weeks as iOS8 drops and people start using it and the iPhone 6.
We will all finally get to start using iOS8 on September 17. AppleVis told you what iOS8 would include and soon you'll be able to try it for yourself.
To recap: iOS8 will bring direct braille input, third party keyboard support (such as using Fleksy in any edit field), increased use of Touch ID, a focus on health and home automation, the ability to manage notifications (such as reply to a message) without leaving the app you are in, and much more. As always, this will be a free update. Please remember to have a backup of your device before you run the upgrade!
Needless to say, some of these features will be invaluable to visually impaired iOS users. The ability to use Fleksy or braille anywhere you want to type text is huge; no more typing your text in an app, copying it, switching back to the app with the text field, and pasting. Finally, you can type with your favorite keyboard and never have to leave the app you are in. If you are a fan of the normal on-screen keyboard, Apple is introducing predictive typing, where the three words iOS thinks you most likely want will appear as you type, changing with every character you enter. You can choose one of these suggestions to have it inserted automatically so you don't need to finish typing out that word. Paired with the existing ability to use text expansion, typing on iOS is about to get a huge efficiency upgrade.
The Alex voice, familiar to anyone who uses a Mac, is coming to iOS. Speech synthesizers are very subjective - what one person thinks sounds amazing might be unintelligible to someone else. If you are a fan of Alex, though, you will finally have the option of using him on your iOS device. I hope that this signals the start of more and more voices coming to iOS; Samantha, Karen, and the rest of the crew we all know and love are fine, but choice is always better. Some languages get updated and wind up being terrible to listen to, as many users report happened with iOS7 for Arabic and a few other languages. More voices for these users would be a huge help. If OS X is any indication, Alex will only be available in English for now (he is English-only on the Mac, and has remained so for years), but maybe Apple will expand the program in the near future.
Of course, visually impaired users will be able to take advantage of all the other features in iOS8 as well. Personally, I'm thrilled that I'll be able to open up the Notification Center, double tap a text message notification, type my reply in braille, send it, and be back in the app I was using before. The vastly improved Spotlight search, which can do things like pull location and contact information for local businesses, will be very helpful as well, particularly for those times when Siri can't or won't work. Thread management, audio clips, location sharing, and the other enhancements coming to the Messages app are also very exciting. It'll be great to be able to see which apps are sucking up all my battery's juice… I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Now, for the new hardware. As we figured it would, the iPhone 6 is being offered in two new screen sizes: 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch. The smaller one is called the iPhone 6, the larger the iPhone 6 Plus. Aside from the screen sizes, both models are nearly identical. Here are the major features and specifications; see the above link for the full product page, or see this iPhone 6 review from MacWorld or this one from Engadget.
- Metal back panel and sides, in three colors: space gray, silver, and gold (same as the iPhone 5S)
- HD Retina display, with enhanced scratch and break protection
- Pixel density of 401 PPI for the iPhone 6 Plus, and 326 PPI for the iPhone 6
- Up to 128GB of onboard storage (previous models of iPhone stopped at 64GB, though there is no 32GB capacity iPhone 6 or 6 Plus)
- A dual-core A8 CPU, using the same 64-bit architecture as the CPU in the iPhone 5S, but with 25% faster overall performance and 50% faster graphics
- an M8 coprocessor for measuring your physical activity without using much battery
- a barometer sensor to detect altitude, used to figure out if you are going up or down stairs
- NFC (near field communications) technology, for mobile payments
- Touch ID fingerprint reader built into the Home button, just like the iPhone 5S
- a 8 megapixel rear camera with the True Tone flash that was originally introduced in the iPhone 5S, as well as optical stabilization (iPhone 6 Plus only), a higher-sensitivity CCD sensor, and other improvements, plus dedicated image processing hardware inside the phone
- 802.11AC wifi, bluetooth 4.0, and LTE (A.K.A. 4G) support. LTE is faster and supports even more carriers than previous iPhones.
- Support for VOLTE (voice calling over LTE), intelligent switching between wifi and cellular data for calls, simultaneous voice and data access over cell networks, and other LTE/cell improvements (most of these require your carrier to support them)
What all this means for you is, in a word: awesomeness! First, the much-improved camera is very probably going to make OCR apps like Prizmo or KNFB Reader Mobile even better, giving them a clearer view of the text you are capturing. Bar code and QR code reading, image recognition, and other apps that use the camera will benefit as well, but they already work quite well on my iPhone 5; I imagine the biggest category where the new camera will shine is OCR. That said, I think the iPhone 6 will be able to do the real-time image analysis that these apps rely on much faster, resulting in speedier detection across the board. Add in the fine-grain control over camera settings that iOS8 will offer apps, and I expect we have a recipe for a great text, code, and object recognition experience.
The larger screen seems to many people to be, at first, a non-issue at best and an annoyance at worst. If you can't see the screen, why would you want to use a phone that has a huge one (I'm looking at you, 6 Plus)? You have to figure out where to put this massive device, get used to your apps being even bigger, figure out new layouts… Why bother? Aside from the fact that the iPhone 6 is actually not much larger than the 5S (the screen is larger, but there is less of a bezel), I can come up with a few reasons:
- The larger screen means a larger phone, which means a larger battery. The battery life on the iPhone 6 is better than the 5S, and the 6 Plus battery is better than the 6. This is a win for all users, especially if you rely on battery-draining GPS or audio apps.
- You have more room on the screen for touch. If you are someone who touches things instead of flicking to them, you might find you enjoy having more content (especially on webpages) available to you on a single screen. Even if you flick instead of touch, you will be able to fit more text from, say, an iBooks or Kindle book. That means more time between that pause while the page is "turned".
- Low vision users will love this. Magnification apps, zoom, larger text, and similar apps and services will have more room to play with, letting users see more at once instead of needing to scroll so much.
- Another win for low vision users is Display Zoom, which will shrink the current app down to a smaller size, then zoom it to the full size of the iPhone's screen. This sounds confusing, but it has the effect of making an app larger and easier to see.
- If you use Apple Maps, Ariadne, or other apps that offer accessible maps on the screen, you will have a lot more room to explore said maps, even when zoomed in.
- The iPhone 6 Plus supports special landscape views in certain apps. For instance, in Mail, switching to landscape mode will show the list of messages on the left, and the currently open message on the right, similar to an iPad. You might find this increased content on a single screen more efficient.
The improved graphics performance, at first glance, also seems to be a feature that will not affect the blind community. However, remember that even when VoiceOver is on, animations are still happening (keyboard or other overlays are sliding around, transparency and 3D effects are being rendered, and plenty more). The faster your phone can perform these visual tricks, the better, even if you can't see them. Plus, of course, video processing will mean a faster and smoother camera experience, and, well, see my OCR comments above. Oh, and face detection will be faster, so if you rely on the feature where VoiceOver tells you how many faces are in a shot and where they are, you might see a speed increase in that sort of real-time processing.
NFC was the other big reveal for the iPhone 6, bringing with it the introduction of Apple Pay. This is a system where your phone becomes your wallet, storing all those plastic cards you carry with you now. With it, the following scenario might be coming to a restaurant or store near you: you walk up to the cash register to pay for your purchases. You pull out your iPhone 6, hold it above the register for a second or two, touch your finger to the Touch ID sensor in your Home button, grab your items, and leave. Your fingerprint has told your phone that you are its owner, then the phone transmitted the payment to the cash register through its NFC chip, and that's it. No more trusting the cashier to tell you the amount you just authorized is right, no signing on an electronic pad, no trying to enter a pin number on a touch screen that won't talk, no dealing with plastic cards or trying to swipe them the right way around… Just hold up your phone, touch the Home button to authenticate, and you're done. Of course, that is just an example - we don't yet know precisely how things will work. The idea, though, is that your phone will replace your physical credit/debit/rewards cards, and use your fingerprint instead of a pin number or signature for authentication.
The Apple Pay system is also very secure, saving a code and not your card's actual number. It transmits a one-time code for every transaction, so even if someone managed to obtain that code, it would do them no good (if you're interested, this system is known as "tokenization"). Plus, if your phone is stolen, it doesn't actually hold your card's real information; remotely wiping the device with Find My Phone or just disabling payments from that phone is enough - you don't need to cancel your bank cards. Adding cards to your phone is very simple: take a picture, confirm the information captured, and you're done. The Passbook app is the hub for managing all your saved cards.
Even the Apple Watch (see below) will support Apple Pay. Since it lacks a fingerprint reader, you will have to enter a pin code on the watch to author the transaction the first time you pay with the watch since you put it on. In other words, once you put on the watch and enter the code, you can simply pay for things by holding your wrist up to a POS terminal. As soon as you remove the watch, though, the pin will need to be re-entered. This way, if someone manages to steal your watch, they can't use it to buy anything without that pin number.
Apple Pay is coming to the United States in a big way, with big names like Subway, McDonald's, Macy's, Disney, and many more already signed on and rolling out NFC payment support to all their locations. More than that, though, there is an API for Apple Pay, letting apps offer the service. The Target app, for instance, might let you decide to buy something, touch your finger to the Touch ID sensor, and… Done. The iPhone auto-filled your payment details using the information it has already stored, and the payment was processed. Any app that wants to can start offering this functionality once Apple Pay comes out (it will be released in an iOS update, likely in October - it will not arrive with the introduction of the iPhone 6 and iOS8). No word yet on whether this app-based aspect of Apple Pay will be supported on the iPhone 5S - it does not need NFC to work, so it may be. Then again, there is a "secure element" in the iPhone 6 that holds your card information codes, an element older devices lack, so perhaps it will be an iPhone 6 exclusive after all. Only time will tell.
I hardly need to explain why this will be such a nice feature for the blind consumer. As I said above, there is no more dealing with plastic cards that all feel the same, trying to figure out which way to scan them, working out where the enter key is on the keypad, entering your pin if the keypad is a touch screen, and so forth. All you do is hold your phone above the same machine that normally reads cards, and NFC takes over. You authenticate the purchase by putting your finger on the fingerprint sensor on your phone, and that's it. No numbers, no signatures, no cards, no cash… No nothing except your phone and your finger.
Physically, from what I have been able to tell so far, the iPhone 6 looks like a blown up iPhone 5 or 5S. The volume buttons and mute switch are still on the left, the charging and headphone ports are still on the bottom, the Home button is still at the bottom of the screen, and the camera is still in the top right corner of the back panel. The main differences are:
- The power button is now on the right side, opposite the volume buttons and mute switch, Instead of being on the top right where it has been for years.
- the screen is larger, meaning that the body is larger, yet both variants of the iPhone 6 are thinner than the 5 or 5S.
- The metal edges are curved, similar to the iPod Touch or iPad design, instead of being squared off like the last several generations of iPhones.
- the camera lens protrudes slightly. If you use your phone on a desk or table, and you don't use a case, you might find your iPhone 6 to be a bit wobbly.
- The volume controls feel different and are slightly recessed. Instead of being flat, circular buttons, they are now more oval-shaped.
I will know more once I can get my hands on an iPhone 6, but those are the major changes that I have been able to get from pictures. Well, technically, I have had people look at pictures and videos and do their best to describe the new iPhone to me, but it comes to the same thing.
The increased battery life, faster processor, mobile payment system, increased ram, and other features all add up to a great phone for anyone, but the visually impaired should be especially excited about it. Better OCR, more responsive overall, longer-lasting battery for those GPS or audio book apps, a replacement for plastic cards… Plus, let's not forget the exciting accessibility-related improvements coming in iOS8. Add it all up and you get a very nice phone poised, I would venture to guess, to make a bigger impact on the blind and visually impaired community than any iOS device since the first iPhone that included VoiceOver.
First and foremost, I have to say that we cannot yet confirm if the Apple Watch will be accessible. Given Apple's inclusion of VoiceOver on everything from the Mac down to the iPod Nano, I assume this device will be as accessible as everything else. I cannot yet confirm this, though, and I cannot say what VoiceOver will look like on the watch if it is included. As of right now, even asking Apple's Accessibility department will only get you a response saying that they cannot say anything not found on the Apple Watch's official webpage.
The Apple Watch is Apple's first foray into the wearable device market, and as it usually does with a new product line, Apple has started out with a bang. The watch is a smartwatch, meaning that it can do far more than tell the time (though it does time quite well, boasting an accuracy of plus or minus just fifty milliseconds). It pairs with your iPhone via bluetooth (in fact, it needs an iPhone to fully function), and can alert you to incoming notifications. If your iPhone is in your pocket or backpack, and you get a text, you can look at your wrist to see the message. This is true of all notifications; anything that appears as a banner or alert is available on the Apple Watch. Note that the Watch needs an iPhone 5 or newer. Compatibility with iPods and iPads was not mentioned.
This little guy goes even further, though, with its array of built-in health sensors. It knows your heart rate, activity level, movements, and more, and it pushes all that data to your iPhone. Using iOS8's new Healthkit combined with its own sensors, your phone can present information on your level of exercise and overall health, going back for as long as you have worn the watch. You can track activity, set health goals, get reminders to do certain exercises… It even learns about you over time, adjusting reminders and suggestions to be more in line with what it thinks you can realistically accomplish. Overall, if you are at all interested in your health, it sounds like this gadget will be a must-have device.
The Apple Watch includes what Apple is calling "atptic technology". Essentially, the watch is able to deliver a gentle tap to your wrist. Combined with its built-in speaker, the feedback options on this device are very exciting to me as a blind consumer. Even an example Apple gave during the presentation mentioned non-visual feedback: you're walking along, having used Siri on your watch to get walking directions to a local establishment. As you approach a turn, you feel a tap on your wrist, indicating you should turn right. Later, a different type of tap tells you to turn left. No need to hear the directions or look at a braille display, the watch silently tells you where to turn and in what direction by simply tapping.
Moving even further, you can use tap codes. Another example from Apple is developing a system between two friends. If Alice and Bob always go out to lunch, Alice might tell her watch to tap Bob three times, the pre-arranged signal for "want to get some lunch?" Bob might respond with one tap for yes, or two for no. In a different scenario, say you are waiting for a friend to pick you up. Instead of them calling or texting you when they arrive, particularly disruptive if you are in a class or meeting, your ride could simply (remotely) tap you on the wrist to let you know they are there. The possibilities of this are very exciting, especially, I imagine, for the deaf-blind.
I realize that some people see this as a gimmick, nothing more than a fancy vibrating watch. The difference is the interaction. No other watch lets the user send a pattern of taps, or remotely vibrate a friend's watch at a specific time. Plus, from what I can tell, this is completely silent; most any vibrating device still makes some noise.
The available apps are remarkable: Maps, Photos, Twitter, and more, with full support for developers to make their own apps in the future. There are also features like Siri, text dictation, on-screen drawing, and more. The Apple Watch supports Apple Pay, letting those without an iPhone 6 take advantage of the new payment system. It can even integrate with the real world; for instance, one hotel chain is developing a way to let guests unlock their room doors with the watch!
The watch comes in three different models, and can pair with one of six different bands, from a sport band of elastomer to leather to metal. To accommodate everyone, there are two sizes of watch and band to choose from. The watch itself comes in aluminum, stainless steel, or eighteen karat gold (yes, gold). It looks like a rectangular digital watch, with rounded corners. The face is the sapphire touch screen, and there is a small stem on the front (on the side where three o'clock would be), called the "digital crown", that is used to control the interface. Still on the side but moving toward the six o'clock position is a dedicated "friends" button, that will offer a list of friends you can quickly contact in a variety of ways - text message, audio clip, drawing, tapping, and more.
The back of the device holds the pulse sensor, and the wireless charger. Yes, that's right: you don't plug this in to charge, you just put it on a little stand, and it moves into position with magnets and begins charging just by being on the stand. The bands for the watch are also easy to use, slipping into grooves on either side of the watch itself (no more dealing with pins to change a band). Several bands even adjust and/or clasp magnetically.
When Can I Get an iPhone 6 or Apple Watch?
NOTE: this is all for the United States only, particularly the prices. For what it's worth, the pricing structure is the same as the one Apple has used in the last few years for new iPhones, so your country should offer similar pricing to what you are used to. Needless to say, any prices given on AppleVis are not final; your carrier or other retailer is the one who decides what you'll pay. Also watch for trade-in deals, intro pricing, new customer incentives, and other deals, as they always come out in force this time of year.
This blog is being written on Tuesday, September 9. As of right now, you can pre-order the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch starting on Friday, September 12. The devices will begin shipping on or before next Friday (September 19), and will be available in physical stores on or around that same day. The specific launch date for the Apple Watch is, as yet, unknown. All we can say for now is that it will be sometime in early 2015.
Pricing for the new gear, and the older iPhone models, is as follows (again, U.S only). Remember that these are the starting prices that will get you the 16GB model of the device; add $100 for the 64GB model, and $200 for the 128GB model (yes, there is no more 32GB model at all). The Apple Watch price goes up according to the type you get, not the storage capacity, and the different prices are not currently known.
- iPhone 6, 5.5-inch: $300, $749 off contract
- iPhone 6, 4.7-inch: $200, $649 off-contract
- iPhone 5S (fall 2013): $100
- iPhone 5C (fall 2013): free (note this is the 8GB model, not 16GB)
- Apple Watch: $349
Apple gave us a whole lot to look forward to in the coming weeks and months. The iPhone 6 will bring better performance, a better camera, and a super simple way to pay for things; iOS8 will offer braille input and third-party keyboards anywhere in iOS, more control over the camera for apps, and plenty of other great features in both accessibility and general use; the Apple Watch, if accessible, will be a wonderful addition to anyone concerned about their health, or who just wants a more convenient way to interact with their iPhone.
So, where do you stand on all this? Is the Apple Watch worth it? Will you be getting the iPhone 6? Were you disappointed today? Let us know what you're thinking in the comments!