A Look at the New Narrator, Microsoft's Built-In Windows Screen Reader
The October Windows 10 Update has arrived, and if you've installed it, you may have noticed some significant changes to Narrator, the operating system's built-in screen reader. The changes start with the keystroke used to toggle Narrator off and on. It's now Windows + Control + Enter instead of simply Windows + Enter. Narrator also allows you to use your choice of the previous Caps Lock Narrator modifier key, or the Insert key, which is more in line with other Windows screen readers. Indeed, with this latest version of Narrator Microsoft has taken a giant step forward toward offering a full-function, built-in screen reader. We'll take a look at some of the new features and capabilities later in this article, but first, let's take a quick look back.
Narrator first appeared in Windows 2000, and for users, it remained more or less the same through Windows Millennium and XP. Microsoft Sam was the speech engine, and, well, let's just say it left much to be desired. Back then you could not use Narrator to install Windows. Indeed, there was very little productive work you could accomplish using this basic screen reader.
"The initial release of Narrator was intended mostly to aid users to independently install a third-party screen reader, or to get back up and running after the main screen reader crashed," says Brett Humphrey, Senior Program Manager of Microsoft's Accessibility Team.
The first significant changes to Narrator occurred in Windows 7. SAPI 5 voices were included. It was also the first version to begin providing at least some information to Narrator and other screen readers via UI Automation instead of Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA.).
MSAA is an application programming interface (API) designed to help screen readers and other Assistive Technology products access, identify, and manipulate an application's UI elements, such as buttons, checkboxes, and other controls. Unfortunately, over the years MSAA became a technological laggard.
"MSAA could tell a screen reader basic things, like 'Hi, I'm a button,' but not much more," says Humphrey. "These days buttons may expand and collapse, or open a list of options. Nor does MSAA allow you to deeply investigate Rich Text attributes, such as when bold face or underlining begins or ends, or detect those squiggly lines that indicate a spelling or grammar error."
Screen reader developers had to find new and innovative ways to detect these screen elements. But starting with Windows 7 it was also possible to get some of the information using UI Automation--a next-level accessibility API, which was not only more accurate than MSAA, but faster as well."
By Windows 8 Microsoft had more or less rebuilt the entire core of Narrator. It also added Narrator touch commands. You may recall that at this point there was an effort by Microsoft to put Windows on different platforms, including ARM-based tablets, so they needed a functioning screen reader since most third-party offerings were not Windows Store capable. Remember Surface RT, anyone?
Now, with Windows 10, and most specifically the October 2018 Update, Narrator has taken a large step toward becoming a full-fledged screen reader. We've already mentioned the new hotkey on/off toggle (Windows + Control + Enter)--apparently this change came about because too many people were pressing Windows + Enter by accident and then panicking when they couldn't get their computers to stop speaking--as well as the addition of the Insert key as a Narrator modifier. A few of the other basic improvements include the following:
- An interactive quick start tutorial that launches automatically the first time you run Narrator.
- A built-in user guide you can access anytime via the General Narrator settings tab.
- The ability to set faster possible speeds for the Microsoft David, Mark, and Zira SAPI 5 voices.
- The ability to issue Narrator commands using the numerical keypad.
Narrator also includes a revamped keyboard layout and some new voice commands. Of course you can always choose to continue using the legacy keyboard layout, and you can change any of the speech or screen navigation hotkeys to suit your individual needs.
Narrator's scan mode, which is similar to the JAWS and NVDA Browse mode, has been updated. "Along with the ability to run voices at a faster rate, one of our number one feature requests was for fast navigation keys, such as 'h' for headings and 'I' for next item," says Humphrey. (Note: You can see a full list of quick navigation and other Narrator commands by starting Narrator and pressing the Narrator modifier key and F1.)
To Humphrey, improvements to Narrator's scan mode are among the most significant changes in this release of Narrator. "With scan mode turned on, it's possible for a brand new accessible computer user to use the Tab and Arrow keys to accomplish nearly everything he or she wishes to do on a website, or in most other Windows applications."
One last feature of the current Narrator was actually released a year ago--the ability to recognize images. Microsoft used what it learned from its iPhone app, Seeing AI, and its AI Cognitive Services team to identify and describe as many graphics as possible as you move down a webpage or document. It's not perfect yet, and you need to be running Narrator for it to work. This is another reason to learn more about Narrator, even if it isn't your primary screen reader.
There is still a lot of work to be done to make Narrator a better screen reader, and the work begins with the Edge browser. "We needed to create a secure browser, and unfortunately, a lot of things we did caused not only Narrator, but other screen readers as well to break," says Humphrey. "Much of our API appear as viruses to the Edge browser. So did a lot of the workarounds screen reader developers used to report information not available in our APIs."
UI Automation enables Narrator to offer a much-improved Edge experience, and according to Humphrey, "Microsoft is working hand in-hand with third party developers to share and improve these tools."
Finer grained verbosity controls are also on the agenda. Excel, for example, is so verbose many users report they cannot use Narrator to work with it productively. Placing the formula to offer the time in Cell A1, for example, results in Narrator speaking: "A1 selected, editable, eleven forty nine, column header capital A, column 2 of 9, contains formula, cell." The "column 2 of 9" is a complete mystery since no block of cells was selected.
"It's a balancing act," notes Humphrey. "Right now we're working on stability, speed and accuracy. Also, at least for now our primary focus is on the brand new speech user, since those who are already using speech are likely well-practiced with one of the current third-party offerings. That is, however, one of the reasons we've changed our keyboard layout--so long time users can more easily transfer their many years of keyboard command muscle memory to Narrator."
Under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft's stated mission is "to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more." These new improvements to Narrator seem to be a substantial step in that direction. And now that Windows is on a twice yearly update schedule, it won't take long to learn just how committed it is to the journey.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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