For Apple, accessibility starts early in the product development process

in General Discussion edited December 2020
Speaking at the Sight Tech Global conference on Thursday, Apple executives Chris Fleizach and Sarah Herrlinger went deep on the company's efforts to make its products accessible to users with disabilities.


In a virtual interview conducted by TechCrunch's Matthew Panzarino, Fleizach and Herrlinger detailed the origins of accessibility at Apple, where it currently stands and what users might expect in the future.

Fleizach, who serves as Apple's accessibility engineering lead for iOS, offered background on how accessibility options landed on the company's mobile platform. Going back to the original iPhone, which lacked many of the accessibility features users have come to rely on, he said the Mac VoiceOver team was only granted access to the product after it shipped.

"And we saw the device come out and we started to think, we can probably make this accessible," Fleizach said. "We were lucky enough to get in very early -- I mean the project was very secret until it shipped -- very soon, right after that shipped we were able to get involved and start prototyping things."

It took about three years for the effort to reach iPhone with iOS 3 in 2009.

Fleizach also suggests that the VoiceOver for iPhone project gained traction after a chance encounter with late co-founder Steve Jobs. As he tells it, Fleizach was having lunch (presumably at Apple's campus) with a friend who uses VoiceOver for Mac, and Jobs was seated nearby. Jobs came over to discuss the technology, at which time Fleizach's friend asked whether it might be made available on iPhone. "Maybe we can do that," Jobs said, according to Fleizach.

From its humble beginnings, accessibility on iOS has transformed into a tentpole feature set that includes tech like Assistive Touch, hearing accommodations, Audio Selections, Dictation, Sound Recognition and more. The latest iPhone 12 Pro adds LiDAR into the mix for People Detection.

Herrlinger, Apple's Apple's Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, says the accessibility team is now brought in early on a variety of projects.

"We actually get brought in really early on these projects," she said. "I think as other teams are thinking about their use cases, maybe for a broader public, they're talking to us about the types of things that they're doing so we can start imagining what we might be able to do with them from an accessibility perspective."

Recent features, such as VoiceOver Recognition and Screen Recognition, lean on cutting edge innovations related to machine learning. The latest iOS devices incorporate A-series chips with Apple's Neural Engine, a dedicated neural networking module designed specifically for ML computations.

VoiceOver Recognition is an example of new ML-based functionality. With the tool, iOS can not only describe content displayed screen, but do so with context. For example, instead of saying a scene includes a "dog, pool and ball," VoiceOver Recognition is able to intelligently parse those subjects into a "dog jumping over a pool to fetch a ball."

Apple is just scratching the surface with ML. As noted by Panzarino, a recently published video shows off software that apparently takes VoiceOver Recognition and applies it to iPhone's Camera to offer a description of the world in near real time. The experiment illustrates what might be available to iOS users in the coming years.

"We want to keep building out more and more features, and making those features work together," Herrlinger said. "So whatever is the combination that you need to be more effective using your device, that's our goal."

The entire interview was uploaded to YouTube and can be viewed below:


  • Reply 1 of 2
    This is cool, but as a VoiceOver user I find the ML-based recognition stuff to be more of a proof of concept. While the image description is neat, it's incredibly distracting to hear all the time and there's no way to completely disable it. Even if you disable the more detailed image recognition, VoiceOver reverts to its behavior from iOS13, so when browsing albums in Apple Music for instance, it'll just say something like "adult, sign" when trying to describe an album cover. Not very helpful. I want a way to only hear those descriptions on demand, perhaps with a custom gesture. Image descriptions generated by machine learning are a long way from replacing a good one described by a real person. 

    The other ML-based VoiceOver feature, screen recognition, also sounds awesome, but I haven't found any apps that it suddenly makes more useable. Oh sure, it'll describe some of the controls in some games, but not enough to make them playable. I think Apple should continue developing this stuff because it does have potential, but I think Apple should also require all apps in the app store to meet a level of accessibility before they can be submitted, with some exceptions of course, like with graphically intensive games. 

    And speaking of, there was a podcast a few months ago where they interviewed people from Apple accessibility which was awesome, but they completely dismissed gaming and said it's kind of a world all its own. Logically I know that it would be quite a challenge to make a lot of games accessible to the blind via VoiceOver, but it's incredibly frustrating to be left out of that kind of entertainment, especially during a pandemic when gaming has had a huge boom.
  • Reply 2 of 2
    philboogiephilboogie Posts: 7,671member
    VoiceOver really ought to be tried out by Fleizach himself before release. When you get a phone menu "press 1 for..." VoiceOver continues to speak out making me not hearing the phone menu options; it simply continues to talk. Infuriating experience.
Sign In or Register to comment.