Cell Phone Accessibility
Siri Substitutes: If You Don't Have Siri, There Are Other Options
When the iPhone 4S was released, it contained a revolutionary app called Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface). The user just has to press and hold the Home button and tell Siri what to do. The app can accomplish many tasks, including sending text messages and e-mails, setting reminders, answering questions, giving directions, playing music, and making phone calls.
If you own an iOS device other than the iPhone 4S, there are apps similar to Siri, but you will need several apps to accomplish the same things. Although many apps offer voice control, the ones in this article are accessible with VoiceOver. All the apps in this article are mainstream and not specifically designed for people with visual impairments. Be aware that since apps may be updated at any time, accessibility can change. Occasionally, an app will be removed from the App Store.
Vokul, an inexpensive ($2.99) yet powerful app, allows the user to make phone calls, send text messages and e-mails, update Facebook status, post tweets, play music, and more. Once the app is set up, all of Vokul's functions can be controlled by voice commands.
The first time the app is opened a brief tutorial starts playing. After that, when the app is opened, Vokul will announce that it is updating your contacts and media library. This can take about 20 seconds. By default, saying "Hey Vokul" will tell the app to listen. Two quick dings will sound, indicating that the app is ready to accept a command. VoiceOver pronounces the app as "Vakul."
The bottom of the screen contains five buttons: "Home," "Contacts," "Media," "Social," and "More." The "Home" button brings up the app's home screen. The "Contacts" and "Media " buttons will bring up a list of contacts and media, respectively. The "Social" button brings up options for interacting with Facebook and Twitter. Vokul allows updating status by voice with both Facebook and Twitter. In addition, Vokul will read what others have posted to your pages.
The "More" button brings up the Settings dialogue and Help section. In the Settings dialogue, various parameters can be determined, including how Vokul responds to commands and to different events. The Help section is clearly labeled and has options on how to perform various tasks, including e-mailing and controlling media such as music and podcasts. There is an option to replay the tutorial. The "What Can I Say?" option brings up a list of commands that Vokul understands. Reviewing the various Help sections for specific tasks will explain the exact sequence of how Vokul will respond to a given command. (Author's note: When dictating information, such as an e-mail or Facebook status update, I have found that Vokul is more accurate with VoiceOver turned off. Since Vokul gives verbal prompts, VoiceOver is not necessary.)
Vokul will verify the name of recipients for phone calls, e-mails, and messages. If there are multiple listings for the same person or artist, Vokul will list them and ask you to choose. When the user dictates information, Vokul will speak what has been said and then present options to "Add More," "Try Again" (which deletes the last spoken information), or "Send Message."
In a noisy environment, Vokul may interpret background sounds as commands. There is a "Touch to Talk" mode for noisy situations. To enter this mode, use the Home tab to get to the main screen. Then, activate the "Ear" button located at the upper left corner of the screen. Next, swipe right two times to reach the "Vokul Logo" button, and activate it. There is no need to say "Hey Vokul" when in this mode. Each time, just double tap the "Vokul Logo" button and say a command. Between the "Ear" and "Vokul Logo" buttons is a button labeled "Fitness." This lets you choose music and have it play faster or slower.
The inexpensive Voice Dictation app ($0.99) lets the user dictate text and then send it as an e-mail or text message, or update to Facebook or Twitter. When the app loads, there are three buttons on the screen. The one in the top left corner is for choosing a language. The button on the upper right corner says "Pref," and it brings up the Settings menu, which is basic and includes options for sounds and for social networks. There's also an option for Voice Dictation to detect end of speech, which causes the app to stop recording when it thinks dictation is done. For me, the app frequently stopped recording too soon when this feature was enabled. The Help section has a list of how to indicate various punctuation symbols. The "Start/Stop" recording button is the final control on the home screen.
To dictate text, double tap the record button and wait until VoiceOver stops speaking. When done, double tap again. When dictation is completed, a new page will load with options to edit the message or send the message as a text or iMessage, an e-mail, a Facebook status update, or a Tweet. The "Cancel" button is the last option. In the Edit option is a button to add to the message.
When a "Send To" option is selected, the appropriate form will open, and the dictated message will be in the correct place for the specific application. However, the user must manually type in the recipient's name or your social network site login information. These tasks cannot be accomplished by voice.
Voice Assistant+ is another inexpensive dictation app ($0.99). When it loads, the home screen has an unlabeled "Settings" button which provides several options, including language choice and whether a sound should occur when the "Record" button is pressed. Next is a text field for editing the message, followed by the "Record" button.
To dictate a message, activate the "Record" button and begin speaking. If the Sound option is on, wait for the sound. When finished, activate the button again. Voice Assistant+ will say, "Processing," and when completed, a sound will be played. The message will appear at the top of the screen where it can be edited. The "Action" button brings up "Send" options. For a text message, the "To" edit box is in the editing mode. For e-mail messages, the "To" field must be double tapped prior to adding a recipient. The app, in addition to e-mailing, texting, sending Facebook updates, and tweeting, also allows for sending to other applications such as Dropbox.
Evi also only costs $0.99. She can answer questions, send text messages, send e-mails, and make phone calls.
When Evi loads, the first control is a button that says "About and Options." By activating this button, new choices are presented, including About Me, Settings, and Tutorial. The Settings option presents a form to connect with Evi on Facebook although Evi can't post status updates. The Settings option also contains a button to clear the list of questions that have been asked. The tutorial option gives examples of how to ask Evi questions. There are times when, if Evi cannot find an answer, re-phrasing the question will have a better result.
In the bottom left corner is the "Listen" button. When it's double tapped, there will be a sound, and then you can ask Evi a question. Evi detects when speech has ended, and she will say, "Listen," indicating that she's searching. When Evi has an answer, she will speak the result. If Evi doesn't speak, flick right to hear results. Another option is to type the question into the edit box.
If Evi isn't sure of an answer, she may offer links to try. Link activation happens within the app, so there is no need to switch to Safari. Once done with the link, activate the "Back" button in the upper left, and the Evi home screen will appear.
When making a phone call, say the word "call," followed by the person's name as it appears in your Contacts list. Evi will say the name or names if there are multiple listings. Once you select a contact, Evi will make the phone call.
To send an e-mail, say the word "e-mail," followed by the person's name, and then the contents of the e-mail. To send a text, say the word "text," followed by the recipient's name, and the message. Evi will present the recipient's name, or if there are multiple listings, then all the names will appear. Double tap the intended recipient. When the next screen loads, the recipient's name will appear in the "To" field. The subject line will be blank, and the message will be in the correct edit box. Either add a subject, or just select "Send."
Speaktoit Assistant ($0.99) can send messages, make phone calls, and find out information.
When the app is first installed, it will ask your name and several other questions. There is no need to press any buttons. One of the questions is whether the tutorial should be played. By default, the app uses a female English accent called Sam.
There are three buttons on the home screen. The first says "Button Share." When activated, it presents several options, including Conversation, Settings, and Skills. The Skills option gives a list of tasks that the app can accomplish. There's a Settings option, but it doesn't contain any useful information. However, if you have some vision, you can change the appearance of the avatar on the screen.
There is an unlabeled button that doesn't appear to do anything different than the third button labeled "Mic Button Round." Double tapping this button has the app listen for a command. Sometimes there's a brief sound after the button is activated, and sometimes there's not. There were occasions when the action had to be repeated twice before the app would listen.
When asked to look up information, Speaktoit will usually say something such as "Let's have a look here," or "Let's Google it." The search results will appear on the page, but they must be read with VoiceOver since the app doesn't announce them. If a link is activated on a search page, the new page will load within the app.
In order to text or e-mail, say the word "text" or "e-mail," followed by the recipient's name. Speaktoit then puts the recipient's name in the "To" box. Speaktoit then prompts for the text or message, and you speak it. Speaktoit reads it back and puts it in the correct edit box. If a recipient has several options, Speaktoit may have difficulty understanding commands to choose the correct recipient. When making phone calls, the app will present choices if there are similar listings.
Battle of the Apps
Siri, Evi, and Speaktoit are all friendly. They answer questions such as "Do you love me?" and "How are you?"
All the above apps, as well as Siri, take dictation. Vokul, Speaktoit, and Siri automatically read the text back while Evi, Voice Dictation, and Voice Assistant+ have the text on the screen. Speaktoit's dictation accuracy was not quite as good as the others'.
Siri, Vokul, and Speaktoit can play media. Speaktoit was not nearly as good at following directions as Siri and Vokul.
Questions and Answers
When Siri is asked a question, she repeats it. Evi and Speaktoit have the text on the screen but do not repeat it.
Question: Where is the nearest pizzeria?
Siri said she found eleven pizzerias, and nine were fairly close. VoiceOver was needed to read the results. The second result was the closest instead of the first.
Evi named the closest one and then said she had information on nine others. VoiceOver was needed to review all the results.
Speaktoit read the names and addresses of seven pizzerias, with the closest one being the first listing. VoiceOver was used to retrieve additional information.
Question: When was the last time the New York Mets won the World Series?
Siri did a Web search and found the answer. VoiceOver was used to read it.
Evi found the answer and said it.
Speaktoit did a Web search and found the answer. VoiceOver was used to read it.
Question: Convert 20 degrees Celcius to Fahrenheit.
Answer: 68 degrees
Both Siri and Evi said the answer.
Speaktoit did a Web search and found the answer, but VoiceOver was used to read it.
Question: How do you say "Good Morning" in Spanish?
Answer: Buenos días.
Siri did a Web search, but VoiceOver had to read it.
Evi said the answer.
Speaktoit said it had the answer, but VoiceOver was needed to read it.
Question: Who played Dr. Hoffman on the TV show Dark Shadows?
Answer: Grayson Hall
Siri did a Web search and found the answer, but VoiceOver was needed to read it.
Evi presented a link to the program's Wikipedia page and a button labeled "Would you like to see some more results?" Wikipedia didn't have the answer in the first few paragraphs, but when the "More Results" button was activated, several other links appeared, and the answer was present. VoiceOver was needed to read all results.
Speaktoit presented unlabelled images of Dark Shadows cast members.
Question: What is the capital of Kenya?
Siri and Evi both said the correct answer, and Siri provided additional information.
Speaktoit loaded Kenya's Wikipedia page, and VoiceOver was needed to read it.
Can the app create reminders on my iPhone?
Answer: Siri can, but they can't be deleted or changed.
Evi and Speaktoit cannot.
Can the app set calendar events on my iPhone?
Answer: Siri can, and they can be modified.
Evi and Speaktoit do not have that capability.
Can the app set alarms on my iPhone?
Answer: Siri can, but Evi and Speaktoit cannot.
Can the apps be activated from anywhere on the phone?
Answer: Since Siri is activated through the "Home" button, it can be activated from anywhere on the iPhone, while Evi and Speaktoit can't be. If Vokul has its multi-task function turned on in the Settings menu, it too can be activated from anywhere on the phone.
The Bottom Line
For very little money, it's possible to get several apps which, combined, can execute many of Siri's functions. Each app has its own advantages and disadvantages. Read their entries in the iTunes store and the Help section of each app, if it's available. Since the apps are very inexpensive, I'd recommend trying several to determine which you like best. All the apps in this article are still on my phone, and I plan to keep them. However, if I were forced to recommend only two apps, I'd choose Evi and Vokul.
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