Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stitcher And TalkBack: The World In My Ears

Shortwave Radio --- and DXing was one my hobbies growing up--- I spent many hours listening to far-off radio stations ---and in the process developed a love for languages. Fast forward to the late 90's, and one could now listen to radio stations from all around the world on the Internet --- but this time without the hiss and static of shortwave propogation. But there was a catch --- you needed to be at your computer to listen to these stations. At home, I solved this problem by setting up a set of living room speakers connected to the computer in my office-bedroom; with a wireless keyboard, this brought Internet radio to my living room.

Fast-forward to the next decade, and I now have the Internet in my pocket in the form of a smart phone. I recently discovered Stitcher on the Android Market --- and it got me the final mile to having ubiquitous access to Internet Radio!

Using Stitcher With TalkBack

There is little more to say other than try it out! .Stitcher on Android is a simple Android application that worksout of the box with TalkBack. Once you install stitcher fromMarket, use the arrow keys or trackball on your phone to browse through the various categories. Clicking on stations launchesplayback immediately. Note that for now, the stop buttonin the player is not navigable by the trackball --- I have gotten used to hitting it by dead-reckoning since it always appears in afixed position. In the last few weeks, stitcher hasreplaced StreamFuriously , my previous Internet Radio solution on Android.

So here's to happy listening!A brief note on the title of this post --- The World In My Ears was also the title of abook on DXing by Arthur Cushen from New Zealand --- I remember hearing his voice in the 80's on the BBC's World Service.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Eyes-Free View Of Android At The Google IO Sandbox

Google IO 2010 is playing home to over 5,000 attendees in San Francisco this week. A number of Google Access engineers are at the conference consuming and producing information --- here is a brief view of some of the exciting bits seen on the Android show floor from an eyes-free perspective.

Hardware And New Devices From An Eyes Free Perspective

Many of the phone manufacturers were showing off their latest devices on the show floor --- visit the Android Sandbox at Google IO to see these first hand. Charles and I walked through the various displays Wednesday (May 19) afternoon to test drive these devices first-hand --- given the large number of Android devices coming out every week, this was a unique opportunity to see many of these devices for the first time. Here are some highlights:

  • All devices were running Android 1.6 or later, and consequently, Settings/Accessibility was available on every device. Having worked on this for the last 2 years, it's extremely gratifying to see phone manufacturers including accessibility in their devices.
  • We found one device from Motorola where we couldn't find the accessibility setting --- the booth representative promised to check after we pointed this out --- waiting to hear back.
  • My favorite device was the LG Ally --- check this device out if you get a chance.
    • Device to be sold by Verizon.
    • Device has an elegant tactual feel.
    • Front of the device sports hardware answer/hangup buttons.
    • The pull-out qwerty keyboard is a pleasure to use --- I would rate this one of the best designed cell phone keyboards I've seen.
  • Android devices continue to show up in many shapes and sizes --- re-emphasizing that there is a device for everyone. This makes it even more important to choose a device that meets your particular needs.

Software --- Android Applications Galore

We also visited the various vendors showing off their latest Android applications. What was gratifying was that even though most of these developers had paid little thought to eyes-free use --- and were blissfully unaware of the existence of an Android Accessibility API, their applications worked for the most part with Accessibility enabled. Where there were gaps, we were able to show developers what they needed to do --- everyone was extremely receptive. Below is a brief summary of what we saw --- and a shout-out to all the friendly developers we met:


This is a very accessible application I have been using for a while --- the developers were thrilled to hear that it was accessible since they had made no special effort.


A competing application to Where with a very slick visual UI. This application doesn't raise the appropriate Access Events at present because it's a custom UI. When we first talked to their lead developer he was extremely hesitant saying I dont want to change my custom UI. However, I could hear his face light up when we said You dont need to change your look and feel --- you just need to set a couple of custom Java properties (specifically, property ContentDescription


Another favorite of mine that works well with access --- except --- the player controls are unlabeled. I showed them the application in action on my Droid --- looking forward to seeing this application become even more usable.

NPR News

There are many NPR tools on the Android Market --- NPR News is the official application. The application was originally written by a Googler and Open Sourced --- I have been using it for about 4 months and it's completely accessible. It could do with some power-user shortcut keys to make it even more efficient.

MLB At Bat

I had originally played with this application during last year's World Series; at the time, the application was quite usable with TalkBack. I'm happy to report that nothing has regressed --- the application still continues to to work well, except for a couple of glitches with unlabled player controls. The booth representatives had actually heard of accessibility --- and were receptive to fixing the remaining issues.

Summary: The light-weight design of the Android Access layer has proven valuable in making sure that it makes it on to every device. The minimal set of responsibilities the API places on developers has meant that a large number of Android applications are accessible out of the box.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Audio Books On Android --- Thanks Librivox!

In my previous article , I alluded to an Audio Books application forAndroid. I did not go into much detail on the application itselfbecause I felt it deserved an article of its own.So heregoes!

In Praise Of Librivox

If you aren't familiar with the Librivox project, please visit Librivox.org to see the wonderful work that that project is doing. Androidapplication AudioBooks brings the wonders of Librivoxto Android --- now, you can carry all 30,000 audio books andcounting in your pocket and access them anywhere .Here are some highlights:

  • Browse, and quickly play available audio books. You canbrowse by several criteria.
  • Books you listen to get downloaded to your device and areavailable for offline listening.
  • All books provide a table of contents, allowing you to jumpto a specific portion of a book.
  • 90% of the application user interface is completelyaccessible with TalkBack --- see below for missing accessfeatures.

The only glitche with using application AudioBooks with the Android Access API is that the player controls withinthe audio-book player are presently missing contentdescriptions --- this is Android-API speak to say that thecontrols are images with missing labels. So the first time youuse this app, you'll need someone to tell you the buttons ---alternatively just experiment to discover theirfunctions. There are pause, play, rewind and forward buttons ---if the friendly folk who developed this application stumble uponthis post, please get in touch, and I can show you what you needto add to your code to make the eyes-free experience evensmoother.

Happy Listening --- And Share And Enjoy!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Using Android Market Eyes-Free

The Android Market is a treasure-trove of applications --- many of which work out of the box with Android's Access API, and as a result, the freely available screenreaders on the platform. Working with Market can be initially daunting, given the large collection applications; additionally, there are a couple of spots in the workflow that need access improvements. While we get those fixes pushed, here is a step-by-step overview of using Android Market with TalkBack, including the work-arounds for moving over some of the afore-mentioned hurdles.

Android Market: A Brief Overview

Rather than giving a detailed explanation of all of Android Market's user interface, I'll sketch my day-to-day mode of using Market --- personally, I find task-oriented help guides far more usable.

Task: Find Application
  • I typically launch Android Market from within the Applications list in the Eyes-Free shell. On my Droid, I typically do this with the keyboard already opened since I know I'll be typing very soon.
  • I press the Search capacitive button on the bottomright of the display to bring up the search tool. Note that Market can sometime take a few seconds to launch depending on your network --- TalkBack should announce Market when it's ready.
  • Type a search query --- as an example, try audio books
  • Use the D-Pad arrow keys (up/down) to navigate the list of results. TalkBack speaks each entry as you move through the list.
  • Find one you like; for this example, we'll use one of my favorite Market applications --- AudioBooks from project Librivox.
  • Press the Enter key on the keyboard to open this application
  • This takes you to a screen that lists a short description, and comments from various users on the application. The install button is on the bottom of this screen.
  • And here comes the sticking point in the Market UI that we're working on fixing; when you cursor through this list, you dont always get to the install button.But no fear, you can still install the application!
  • While we work on creating and pushing the fix for the above, I typically install applications by tapping the screen where the install button appears. The bad news is that Ipresently do this by dead reckoning; the good news is that the install button always appears at a consistent spot. The easiest way to learn to do this is to have someone put your finger on the button the first time, and then learn its position relative to the pull-out keyboard. While we know that this is not an ideal eyes-free experience, this little trick opens up a treasure-trove of applications.
  • Tap the install button, and you come to the permissions screen. Cursor to the OK button, and press Enter Depending on the layout of that screen, you may once again need to use dead-reckoning. At this point, I routinely click those on-screen buttons, rather than wasting time attempting to cursor to the button.
  • And voila, the AudioBooks application should download and install!
Task: Browse Market

In addition to searching, you can also browse the Market for available applications, use the cursor keys on the D-Pad for browsing. Once selected, installing an application follows the same workflow as above.

And The Best Is Yet To Come

Once installed, you can try out the application by pulling down the status bar. Look for the next posting in this series for details on using application AudioBooks --- it is one of my all time Market favorites.