Monday, February 8, 2010

Silencing Speech With A Wave Of Your Hand On Android 2.0

Update To Android Access: TalkBack

Smart phones tend to be short on physical buttons --- even devices like the G1 or MotoRola Droid have very few buttons when the physical keyboard is not open. This provides interesting challenges when designing an efficient eyes-free interface --- especially given the old maxim Speech is silvern, but silence is golden!.Said differently, once you have built a system that talks back, the first thing you want to build is an efficient means of silencing spoken feedback.

Early versions of TalkBack on Android skimmed by without a stop speech button --- you basically moved from one activity to another,and the speech produced by the new activity effectively stopped ongoing spoken output. However, as we make more and more applications work seamlessly with our Access APIs, it's always been clear to us that we need a global stop speech gesture! Notice that I said gesture --- not key --- stopping speech is a critical function that we'd like to enable without having to pull out the physical keyboard, and something we'd like to have devices without a physical keyboard.

In the spirit of the dual to every access challenge is an opportunity to innovate, we recently launched a new experimental TalkBack feature on devices running Android 2.0. Devices on the Android 2.0 platform have a proximity sensor on the top front left corner of the phone --- this is typically used to lock the screen when you're holding the phone up to your ear when on a phone call. As the name implies, the proximity sensorfires when you get close to it --- you can activate it by waving your hand close to the top left corner of the phone. As an experimental feature, we have configured the latest version of TalkBack to silence ongoing speech if you wave your hand in front of the proximity sensor.

Note that this is a new, experimental feature --- it's something that we welcome feedback on our public Eyes-Free Google Group. We'd like to know if you accidentally activate stop speechbecause of this new feature. In having used it for a few weeks, I find that I am not triggering it accidentally --- but that might well be a function of how I hold the phone.

What Devices Does This Available On?

Note that at the time of writing, the devices that have a proximity sensor that I have used this on include:

  • MotoRola Droid from Verizon
  • Google NexusOne

Note that the G1 and other older Android devices did not have a proximity sensor.

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