Can an Android Make Your Mobile Phone Accessible?
If you're like me and you watched countless hours of this spring's March Madness NCAA college basketball tournament, you probably heard plenty of promotions for the Droid cell phone. The Droid is one of several new phones using Google's new Android operating system. If you have been wondering what an android can do for you as far as cell phone accessibility, you've come to the right place. Along with my fellow lab rats at AFB TECH, I've been investigating a couple of phones with the Android operating system, and this article will discuss the accessibility that is being developed for this new line of cell phones and provide our initial thoughts on the line's progress.
Google launched the Android operating system in 2008. Android is an open-source operating system for cell phones in the smartphone category. Android phones compete with many of the smartphones we have reviewed in AccessWorld that use the Blackberry, iPhone, Windows Mobile, or Symbian OS operating systems. In January 2010, Android had 7.1 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, and its share has been rising steadily.
Several manufacturers are building Android-based smartphones, and they are available from all U.S. carriers. Besides the Droid, which is manufactured by Motorola and available from Verizon Wireless, we also looked at the Nexus One, an unlocked smartphone from Google that can be used on AT&T and T-Mobile networks. The focus of this article is the software, so I don't want to spend a lot of time describing the hardware, but here are the basics. Android-based smartphones all feature touch-screen interfaces with virtual keyboards, and many also have physical QWERTY keyboards that slide or flip out. They each have a track-ball or directional pad (D-pad) type navigational control, as well as a volume toggle, headphone jack, and power button. Some, but not all, also have physical send and end keys for handling phone calls, something I will address later in this article.
Caption: The Droid Phone
Caption: The Droid phone and its QWERTY keyboard
The Nexus One has a track-ball for navigation, but it does not have a physical QWERTY keyboard or send and end keys. It is very similar in size and shape to the iPhone; in fact, my iPhone case fits the Nexus One perfectly. The Droid is similar, but a bit thicker because it has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard with a D-pad on the right side of the keyboard, but it has no physical send or end keys. In addition to all of the virtual buttons that can appear on the touch screen, these phones also have four touch buttons on the touch screen that are always there, and they are labeled "Back," "Menu," "Home," and "Search." The Droid runs Android version 2.0 and the Nexus One runs version 2.1.
What About Accessibility?
For people with vision loss, the interesting work at Google is being done by the Eyes-Free project, led by blind scientist T.V. Raman and his colleagues Charles Chen and Svetoslav Ganov. Working to accommodate people with vision loss, as well as sighted people in situations where they cannot look at their phones, the Eyes-Free project began with a collection of Android applications aimed at making it easier to interact with the phones non-visually. Examples include the Talking Dialer, Talking Caller ID, and Talking Compass applications (apps). Building on this, they announced the TalkBack screen reader in October 2009 to provide spoken feedback when using the various apps available on Android phones and at the Android Market. This is enhanced by the SoundBack and KickBack apps that provide non-spoken feedback, such as beeps and clicks, and haptic/vibratory feedback as you interact with the phone. You will need sighted assistance to go to the menu and choose settings and then accessibility to enable these apps, but they will then stay enabled as long as you don't go back and disable them.
Because the Android Market is a growing source for a wide array of third-party apps for these phones, the Eyes-Free team is also making it possible for designers to make their apps compatible with Eyes-Free functionality. They have resources available on the Google Resources page, and there is another page for developers.
Bringing it all together is the Eyes-Free Shell, which they are calling Marvin, after the paranoid and depressed robot in Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You can make Marvin your home screen and make it your launching point for Eyes-Free apps. A video available on the Google Resources page notes that Marvin pulls together the various aspects of Eyes-Free for a more consistent and well-integrated interface. These accessibility features come at no extra cost, and they are available out of the box on all phones running Android version 1.6 or later.
How Does It Work?
With TalkBack, KickBack, and SoundBack enabled, you can move around the grid layout of the home screen/desktop of your Android-based phone using the track-ball or D-pad. TalkBack will speak the names of the various items and applications, and SoundBack will emit a ding sound when moving from item to item. You cannot navigate to the touch buttons at the bottom of the screen that I mentioned earlier; these must be touched to activate. KickBack provides a short vibratory burst to indicate you have found the buttons, which also helps in learning how to find them non-visually. If an app has been designed properly, these features will allow a person with vision loss to use them independently.
Marvin, the Eyes-Free Shell, allows you to use these features to more efficiently use your Android phone. With Marvin's home screen up, you can think of the touch screen as a 3 by 3 grid of controls, much like a dialing grid on a standard phone. You can move your finger around the screen and it will speak the action under your finger. You then simply lift up and it activates that action. However, you don't have to know exactly where the buttons are because Eyes-Free employs what they call "relative positioning." Wherever you touch the screen will be the 5 position, and then you can move relative from that position to the other positions in the grid. Moving from 5 in a northwestern direction up to the 1 position, you will hear it say "signal strength," and if you lift your finger, it will tell you how strong your connection is. The 2 position is for time and date and 3 is for battery level. Although it certainly helps to begin as close to the center of the screen as you can, the nice thing is you don't always have to hit a precise position to begin.
I won't get into all of the other controls on Marvin's home screen, but the 6 position is interesting. It is for location information, and Android uses Google Maps along with cell towers and satellites to tell you your general location, usually accurate to within a block.
The 8 position is for launching applications, and when you activate that control, Marvin has a unique way of quickly launching the app you want. Using what they call the "stroke dialer," you can type the first letter of the app you want and then choose from a list of apps starting with that letter. Here's how it works. Starting again near the middle of the screen and moving in a northwestern direction toward the top left corner, you will hear it say the letter A. Moving your finger in a circular clockwise direction, you will hear B, C, D, all the way to the letter H. For I through P, begin by moving straight up in a northern direction. For Q through X, start by going in a northeastern direction to the top right. For Y, Z, a series of punctuation marks, and the backspace key, start by moving in an eastern direction. When you hear the first letter of the app you want, just lift your finger and you can then use the track-ball or D-pad to navigate and choose the app you want. For example, you could go to the letter C and launch contacts and begin scrolling through your contacts. Note: the punctuation marks were not spoken by TalkBack.
How Do You Dial a Phone Number?
Although most of us who use smartphones usually place calls from the contacts list or the call log, we still occasionally have to dial a phone number directly. The Talking Dialer app, which is integrated into Marvin, is activated by touching the button labeled "Search" on the lower right corner of the screen. The KickBack app gives vibrates to indicate you have found the button, and you are now ready to enter the digits. Again, this app uses "relative positioning," so wherever you place your finger is the 5, and the rest of the dialing grid is positioned relative to that spot.
Let's say you want to dial an 800 number. Start by placing your finger in the middle of the screen; slide down one position and lift your finger and you will hear it speak the number 8 and an 8 is placed into the number you are dialing. SoundBack emits a tick sound to indicate when you have passed into the area of the screen for an 8. For the 0, you again place your finger in the middle of the screen and this time move down two ticks and lift your finger to enter a 0. When finished with all the digits, touch the Search button on the bottom right corner and you will hear the digits you have entered. Touch it again to place the call.
You shake the phone once to delete a character you have misdialed, and twice to clear all digits. To end a call, you have to touch a virtual button that appears on the screen about a third of the way up from the bottom. With advice from T.V. Raman of Google's Eyes-Free project, I placed a stick-on dot on the back of the phone to help me orient my fingers to the right spot. That also helps with finding the correct place to swipe your finger to answer or ignore a call. One drawback to the Talking Dialer is that it does not work to enter digits into the interactive phone systems we often encounter, where you have to press 1 for customer service and 2 for sales, etc.
Thoughts from the Lab Rats
After a couple of solid weeks in and out of the lab with the Android phones, we're not ready to tell you to ditch your current phone and run out to get the nearest Android you can find. However, once we figured it all out, there were certainly a lot of positives. If the progress we have seen in Android accessibility over the last year continues, this may be a real force in smartphone accessibility.
First of all, considering the high price we often have to pay for accessible technology, it is certainly refreshing and encouraging to see that Google, as Apple did with the iPhone, is creating this accessibility at no extra cost. We found TalkBack's synthetic speech to be clear and easy to understand. As my intern said, "This android might not be good with a light saber, but it has a better voice than R2D2." We also found it to be very responsive to commands, without any annoying delays.
We used several of the apps that came with the phones and most of them worked well. It was easy to launch and use the contacts app to find a contact and make a call, and with a little practice, we also got used to using the Talking Dialer to make calls. Similarly, the Music, YouTube, and Facebook apps were straightforward and accessible. However, in what could be a deal-breaker for some of you, the Web browser and e-mail apps are not yet accessible. We also found a couple of bugs along the way that will need to be worked out. On the Nexus One, the Talking Caller ID app would often speak the ID of the previous caller rather than the current caller. On both phones we looked at, when pressing the power button to wake it up from its sleep state, it tells you to hit the home button to wake it up, but you actually swipe your finger from left to right across the screen.
The lack of available documentation, such as a user guide, quick start guide, or tutorial did make it difficult for me to learn how to use everything, and I have access to a couple of college intern lab rats to help me out. I can see how the average person could have some trouble getting squared away with an Android phone. However, the Eyes-Free team does have several videos available, and there is an active Eyes-Free Google Groups discussion group where you can find help. See the Resources section of this article to learn how to access the videos and the group.
Which Phone Works Best with Eyes-Free?
It wouldn't do you much good for me to suggest one specific phone model because the pace of change in the Android phone market is so fast that the phone might be gone from the market by the time you read this. However, I can give you some general information to help you make a choice. First, you want to make sure the phone is running Android version 1.6 or later. Second, you want to get a phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard, so I would not recommend Google's Nexus One. The reason for this is that Android's virtual QWERTY keyboards are not yet accessible, and a QWERTY keyboard is necessary for nearly all tasks that require text input, such as text messaging, sending tweets or Facebook updates, or using the interactive phone systems we often encounter where you have to press 1 for customer service and 2 for sales, etc. A physical QWERTY keyboard will also be necessary when browsing and e-mailing are made accessible. The stroke-dialing described for launching applications is fine for a letter or two, but will never be efficient for typing larger amounts of text.
The tactile nature of QWERTY keyboards can also be a problem for some users, as the keys can often be very small or very flat and difficult to differentiate from one another. They also usually don't have easy-to-feel nibs for orientation purposes. You may try adding marks to the keys to help with orientation or, as it is nearly impossible to add a raised mark on a slide-out keyboard, you might try roughing up a key or two with a fingernail file. Although I have never been overly comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard on a cell phone, I know many of you are, and even I can get used to one with a little practice and maybe a little modification.
The Bottom Line
At this point, the accessibility and usability of the Android phones have not reached the levels of we have seen with other smartphones, such as the iPhone or the Symbian, Windows Mobile, or Blackberry phones with their respective screen readers. However, it does provide some real accessibility out of the box and at no extra cost. Our contacts at Google tell us they are committed to improving the accessibility of their products, and the work on the accessibility of Android is not complete. Google's Jonas Klink, who gave a presentation on Google's accessibility efforts at this year's CSUN Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities, told me that even though something might not work perfectly in the beginning, it doesn't mean they are not working on it. If you recall, Google's famous search engine page was not exactly perfect for screen readers in the beginning, but it has now evolved into one of the most accessible and useful tools I use on a daily basis.
Klink and Raman are looking for user feedback, and you can provide that feedback in the Eyes-Free Google Group or at Google's accessibility page.
If you have access to an Android phone belonging to a friend or relative, or you just like to try out new technology, I do recommend you get your hands on one and provide your feedback. You could play a role in making Web browsing and e-mail accessible, or you could share your ideas for creating an accessible virtual keyboard or user guide.
General Google accessibility page: www.google.com/accessibility
Videos from TV Raman and Charles Chen on Eyes-Free Accessibility: www.google.com/accessibility
Eyes-Free Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/eyes-free
Christopher Millsap discussing the Droid on Blind Cool Tech: www.BlindCoolTech.com
Resource for app developers: http://Eyes-Free.googlecode.com
This product evaluation was funded by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, WV.
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