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Friday, January 25, 2013

iPad VO Controller to control all apps on the iPad?


(click any pic for larger image)
Picture of ipad
            voiceover controller
Read all of this. You'll be a more informed person ;-)

My iPad VO (VoiceOver) Controller connects to an i-device (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), through Bluetooth (a wireless technology), through an Accessibility feature that Apple generously included in the iOS (the iPhone Operating System on all iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches) for blind people, VoiceOver. Apple designed VO so that people could move their finger around on their touchscreen and hear what was under their finger. Double-tap anywhere on the screen to activate (like pressing Enter on a computer keyboard)...
image of ipad voiceover controller and ipad
                      tall stand

My Tall Tablet Stand holding my iPad 2, inside my Carry Case/Bumper Case Combo, showing my Point To Pictures app, operated by my iPad VO Controller's arrow and Select buttons.
...Apple soon found out that blind people prefer using a keyboard to control a "screenreader" to hear the screen rather than see it. They built in many VO keyboard shortcuts so that blind persons could use a Bluetooth (BT) keyboard to control VO. They then added a function within VO called QuickNav, which allows navigating through any VO-compatible apps with left/right arrows, and simultaneous up/down key as Enter (like double-tap described above). There are keyboard shortcuts for your Home button, and toggling QuickNav mode on/off (between having arrow keystrokes move a text cursor within a text field, and moving between things on the screen).

So IF you can build a switch interface, or controller/button-box that 'emulates' (pretends to be) a BT keyboard, and 'types' these shortcuts, you can, in theory, 'globally' control any app that is compatible with VO, on an iOS device.

And that's what I've done here with my iPad...

VO Controller. The pictures above clearly shows what each button does, and the YouTube video below shows an actual demo of how it works.

This method of 'global' iPad control is how several switch interfaces from other companies work. And I'll be creating my own version of a iPad Switch VO Interface by early 2013.

But in between 'direct select' (directly touching the iPad screen) and switch 'scanning', I created my iPad VO Controller for you! It's a good pretty good compromise (nothing is perfect in this world of AT ;-)

Now some caveats:

  • You can only move to the 'next' screen object (button, field, list item, etc.) with the right arrow, or 'back' an object with the left arrow. There is no up/down, so you must go through everything on the screen many times to get to the bottom right of the screen. If you have long lists, it could take a loooonnngg time to make it through with a switch interface. This is especially noticeable with the iOS keyboard.
  • Currently, with my Controller, there is no hold-down mode (auto-repeat). I will be adding this option early in 2013 so the user will be able to hold down one of my buttons to move through multiple screen objects.
  • Not all apps are VO-compatible, even Apple's. When other companies claim "all iPad apps", that must be taken 'with a grain of salt' ;-) (No, I can't keep track of all apps that are VO-compatible. That would be in the thousands) Even AAC apps (of which there are now TOO many!) may not be VO-compatible. To find out, simply turn on VoiceOver (Settings, General, Accessibility, VoiceOver, On, and remember that you have to double-tap after you've highlighted something to actually *do* that something). Now go into your app and move your finger around. Do you hear things as you move over them? Do they highlight?
  • If you select a text field, the iOS turns QuickNav off, assuming you want to use your left/right arrows to move around *within* the text field. To get back to moving around between on-screen objects, you must press my Type/Move button to turn QuickNav back on. I don't believe the existing switch interfaces address this very important issue.
  • And click here for an email I sent about VO efficacy.
And there you have the true story.


H-87 - iPad VO Controller.....$199

Hello to my RJ 'fans' (yes, I say that with all false modesty aside!  29 years doing this?  I've earned a few 'fans' 

The truth about 'global' iPad access

There is a myth, or gossip, or misunderstanding about some new devices that claim they can control all, most, or even some iPad apps by special needs devices.  I'm here to tell you that this is just not true.  There are 'considerations' which you *must* understand in order to have people that can NOT *functionally* touch the iPad's screen, operate apps that have not been specifically programmed for 'alternative access'.

First, an app programmer *can* program in some special access.  I can email you, upon your request, for a list of 'switch-friendly' apps that are compatible with my, and other company's, switch devices.  But this discussion is not for those VERY few apps.

This discussion here is for those apps that do *not* have any special programming.  This discussion is for most apps in the App Store, that is, those apps that don't know anything about 'alternative access' devices.  Here we go...

There are several Bluetooth switch interfaces, an iPad case *with* switch interface, a joystick going through a Bluetooth interface, and even my own VoiceOver Controller...

...that claim some sort of 'global' access to *all* iPad apps.  In other words, they claim that apps that have no idea about switches or special needs can be accessed with/through their device.

Don't get me wrong.  Their devices are very nice and in fact, *I* am even reselling one of them:

But the bottom line is that all of these type of devices attempt to access non-switch apps through a 'back door' that Apple has provided called VoiceOver ("VO," actually meant for blind persons), Apple's only allowance of 'global' access to all apps.  Well, that was the *plan*, but I'm here to tell you that reality is much different 

First, just believe me that all these devices are dependent upon an app being 'VO-compliant,' meaning that the app will highlight and speak aloud anything your finger moves over.  If the app is not VO-compliant, then these devices do nothing.  And I'm here to tell you that even I am surprised how few apps are VO-compliant. 

Test *your* desired app.  Go into Settings, General, Accessibility, and turn on VoiceOver.  Move your finger around slowly.  Note how things get highlighted and spoken.  To activate what is highlighted, double tap *anywhere* on the screen.  Now press your Home button, navigate to your desired app, double tap, and see if moving around within your app highlights and speaks items.

I'm finding it's even a harder 'sell' to approach developers and convince them to make their apps VO-compliant as it has been to get them 'switch-friendly'.  So here I am struggling, for 2 years now, to convince special needs app developers to make their apps 'switch-friendly', that is, working with devices and interfaces that 'type' specific keystrokes to the ipad, and only getting just a few to add that capability.  In other words, all apps should work with all devices, and vice versa.

But, even at a recent special needs touch technology conference, where I was a main speaker for in St. Louis last week, as I traveled between app booths, none of them was fully VO-compliant.  Darn!

As for 'regular' apps, same deal.  Very few are VO-compliant.  BUT, thankfully, some are, most importantly, Apple's own apps on your i-device:

Photos (to some extent)
All text-oriented apps that can use the Apple's built-in keyboard

And as for 'regular' apps, 'forget about it' 

OK, let's talk about what this means to you.  Let's say you have someone physically 'involved' enough so that *functionally* controlling the iPad is challenging *at all* (and I mean that *literally*), then you should consider alternative control methods.  BUT...Apple doesn't allow for alternative control methods like a PC or Mac does (such an example of global alternative control is my CrossScanner at (  What types of alternative control methods *do* exist?  The only ones that I can *truthfully* recommend are my own!

Capacitive HeadPointer
Conductive HandPointer

That's it!  No eyegaze.  No head tracking.  No trackball or other mouse-type device.  The primary reason?  No cursor!  Secondary reason?  Apple doesn't allow it!

So other than 'direct select' using somone's fine motor finger/'knuckle control, or one of my offerings (or something similar from some other source), what would we *want* that even *might* be possible?  

Switch scanning (auto or step)

And now we get to the 'meat of the matter'.  Can these methods *really* 'globally' access all, or most, or even some of iPad apps?  The answer is "some."  But even that must be taken with a 'grain of salt'.  I have to go into more detail to properly explain the situation.  If you want to use an ipad with/for someone and they have physical limitations, you *should* read on...

Once Apple added VoiceOver to Macs and then i-devices, they found out that, for the most part, blind people don't use 'graphic interfaces' via a mouse-device or their fingertip.  That is, they use keyboards, via a software package such as the ubiquitous JAWS, a "screenreader" program that reads aloud what people with vision see.  A comprehensive list of keyboard "shortcuts", combination of keys, gives complete readback and control over PC's.  Similarly, through VO, Apple added keyboard shortcuts to Macs and i-devices.  Apple then added a feature within VO called QuickNav, which lets the left/right arrows of a keyboard to move between screen 'objects' (paragraphs, buttons, list items, etc.), but ONLY left/right (previous/next).  

And that's how the above devices operate, by 'typing' the appropriate VO keyboard/QuickNav shortcuts.  BUT...keep in mind that if the app is not VO-compliant, that is, does *not* respond to VO keystrokes, then no device/method in the world is going to access that app, unless it has been made switch-friendly, or joystick-friendly, meaning *specifically* programmed to look for these devices.

And even if the app is VO-compliant, keep in mind that VO only goes previous/next, left/right.  This means *no* up/down.  And that means you must sequentially move through all available objects left to right, top to bottom.  OUCH when it comes to any screens that have a lot of things on them, like an AAC board with 16 or more buttons, or multi-paned lists, or web pages (they *all* have *lots* of 'objects' on them).  Worse yet is the i-device's onscreen keyboard.  Want an "N"?  You'd have to turn QuickNav off, and right-arrow (or scan) all the way from upper left of the on-screen Apple keyboard, across and down, across and down, and across again to get the "N" 

And there is *no* row-column scanning; it's all sequential!  That's because an app can't actually 'tell' if it's being controlled by VO and adjust itself.  Only when the app is specifically programmed for row/column can it occur.

So VO control is funky!  It's possible, and it does give *some* access to non-alternative-device-friendly apps, but it's what we in engineering would call a "kluge."  It's pretty much a 'let the buy beware' issue because it seems that several AT companies may not be telling the whole story.  It's up to *you* to understand the above and apply it to your choice of control device and, actually of a device in general, iPad, Android or PC tablet, or Mac or PC computer.

And don't be mis-led by *any* company's claim of 'global access'.  However, even with all these limitations, you *must* consider *any* option that Apple allows.  Because of this fact, *I* make a BIG button VO-Controller, and *I* resell a VO-compatible switch interface (*I* will be making my own within a few months), and NEW is my LARGE key, colored-rows keyboard specifically for iPad (ask for details if interested in any of these).

I do I wish I could have given you better news than above, but the above is the truth, with little or no exception.

I thought this would be good information for you, and create realistic expectations when purchasing one of *my* VO controllers.

RJ :-)

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