September 2018 will see the 8th year anniversary of Joe and J.J. talking about Android accessibility features on a number of podcasting platforms. After several versions of Android, and around half a dozen phones between them, the duo can say that the options for Android users continue to impress upon each successive release.
Victor Tsaran, Technical Program Manager for Android Accessibility, has been an extremely busy fellow with preparations for the impending launch of Android P later this year. While we sadly didn't learn what the letter P will stand for as the next delicious flavor of Android, J.J. did glean much in the way of what changes are on the horizon for accessibility in the upcoming release of the operating system.
In this interview the pair discuss the recent change to combine several access services, including TalkBack, into the new Android Accessibility Suite. The conversation then moves to the new features and Accessibility Services in Android P including one of interest to people with hearing loss. Additionally, Braille input fans will be interested in the talk about an upcoming BrailleBack release. And you won't want to miss the tips for those considering the purchase of an Android device or how OCR plays into the new Select to Speak feature for Low Vision users.
Check out the Google Accessibility blog to learn more about what changes are happening at Google.
Follow Google Access on Twitter
Or, visit the Google Access site
] to find helpful information and resources about various Google products.
Our 2018 summer convention coverage is sponsored by Google.
This week we're teaming up with our friends on the Google Accessibility team to talk about accessibility features within products like Android, Chrome OS, G Suite, Google Home, Assistant and more! Be sure to listen to our podcast series where we get the inside scoop, including the upcoming launch of Chat support and a 24 hour response time for the Disability Support team on July 9th.
The Google Accessibility team is also inviting everyone to participate in user research studies, where you can help shape the future of accessible products and features -- and get rewarded for it. Select here to sign up to participate and learn more at google.com/accessibility.
We strive to provide an accurate transcription, though errors may occur.Hide transcript
Transcribed by Grecia Ramirez
This convention special podcast is sponsored by Google.
Our friends at Google are working hard to create great technology products for everyone. They’re inviting you to participate in Google user research studies, where you can help shape the future of accessible products and features and get rewarded for it. Check out our tweet for the sign-up link, at blind bargains, or head to google.com slash user research.
Now, here’s J.J. Meddaugh
J.J. MEDDAUGH: Convention coverage, 2018. Pleased to once again welcome Victor Tsaran. He is a Technical Program Manager on the Android services team. Of course, working a lot with – well, what was TalkBack, which still is TalkBack, but now, the Android Accessibility Suite and much more. Victor, welcome back to the podcast.
VICTOR TSARAN: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure talking to you, J.J. So every opportunity is awesome.
JM: Well, thank you so much for stopping by. It gets really busy around the convention season, for sure. Actually, we’ll start right there. Of course, Victor, there’s a lot with Android in TalkBack, but – well, TalkBack is just part of what is now the Android Accessibility Suite. Why don’t you explain what’s going on and what’s changed.
VT: So the first change is in the name, obviously. We tried to touch on this a little bit during the Google I/O presentation. But in essence, what’s been happening is that most people knew about TalkBack. It’s, you know, our screen reader. But not many people knew the TalkBack package also included other accessibility utilities such as Switch Access for people who rely on single switches and have motor disabilities. It also included Select to Speak, which is another accessibility service that allows people with learning disabilities to read screen in a more efficient way, and so on and so forth.
And so what we figured out is that while TalkBack is always one of our prominent utilities that people know about, the other two sort of were always, like, under the radar. Even if you went to the Play Store and you wanted to search for Switch Access, you would never be able to find it out. So we thought it was a good time for us to package all these utilities and just call it something that describes what’s in the package more adequately. And so this is why we came up with a name, Android Accessibility Suite. This also, in the future, will serve as a platform for launching other services, and on a more technical level, all of these utilities that I just mentioned, they share some components. It’s part of the code restructuring we’ve been doing over the last year. And so even from the technical standpoint, it made more sense to give this package a new name because, like I said, all of these utilities share some libraries and components that are common to all of them.
So for the users, nothing really changes much. If you go to the Play Store, if you already have TalkBack installed, you don’t have to do anything. It will automatically get updated. The change is mostly only in the name, but like I said, from the searchability point of view and discoverability, it’s going to make a huge difference for people who are not TalkBack users but are looking for other accessibility services.
JM: So essentially, next time you search for an update, if you happen to have updates turned off, you’re just going to see Android Accessibility Suite in the list instead of TalkBack?
VT: Well, not exactly. So what we’ve done – the name actually says Android Accessibility Suite, and in parentheses, it says formerly TalkBack.
VT: So if you don’t know about Android Accessibility Suite, you search for TalkBack, you will still be able to find. We’re hoping that maybe within a year or so, once people get used to the new name, we’ll be able to remove the, “formerly TalkBack” part, but for now, we decided to keep it accessible in a way that even if people don’t know about it, our Android Accessibility Suite, they’ll still be able to find and put it on there.
JM: Sure. And if they search for the older name, they should come up in the search on the Play Store.
JM: And of course, one of the other things about this – this isn’t going to change at all either; right? I mean, Android Accessibility Suite comes with any Android device, essentially?
VT: Exactly. So from now on, it will have – it basically will have all of the same things that are built in, just the name will change. And hopefully as we move forward, new things will be added to that suite. So –
JM: So you have magnifier, and you have BrailleBack, you have all this. How do you decide which apps get included in the accessibility suite?
VT: So for now, it’s pretty simple. All the same things that have been included are still included. We are thinking of the ways to keep the package small, like offering people ability to perhaps select which things they want in the future, but that is still being decided and the announcement will be made as we move forward.
JM: So as we move forward, of course, this is coming towards Android P and the next version of Android coming out later this year. We’ve talked a little bit about this at Google I/O, but why don’t we kind of bring people up to speed on what’s new in TalkBack, both for Android P users and for older Android users.
VT: So for TalkBack users, there probably won’t be much visible changes in terms of visible changes. The big things will be, of course, support for anything that’s new in P. A lot of it is internal. There’s some new API’s for developers, for example, ability to specify headings. So TalkBack needed to support that particular API. We also design it in such a way that it will be backward compatible if developers use backward compatibility libraries. There are other things. But, again, from the user point of ewe, a lot of it is going to be internal. TalkBack has made some changes to make it easier for developers to take advantage of these new API’s.
In terms of other accessibility services, we’ll be introducing a new accessibility service called Accessibility Menu. And that basically will allow people who have difficulty pressing hardware controls to access those same controls via a software-based menu. So essentially, the way this works is when you enable the service, you will see an accessibility button at the right bottom corner of the screen. When you press it, a grid with features will come up, and you’ll be able to, for example, start Google Assistant by simply touching the button or change the volume or lock the screen or take a screen shot. So essentially, think of it as a menu with shortcuts to the most important system’s features. This accessibility menu will also be usable in conjunction with TalkBack, so if you want to run both of them side by side, you’ll be able to do that as well. And we’ll be adding more options to this menu as the time moves on.
The other feature we’ll be introducing in P, in terms of accessibility services, is the new OCR capability for Select to Speak. This will allow people to not only read what’s on the screen, but also for example, take a picture and recognize the text in this picture in realtime or scan a webpage, and the text that is not presented in textual format, for example, a picture or a graphical element, the user will be able to recognize it with OCR and then read it with the text-to-speech synthesizer.
JM: That’s cool. High-level for – I know that you mentioned Select to Speak. For people who might not be as familiar, can you talk about the differences between Select to Speak and TalkBack?
VT: Yeah. Thanks for asking. We do get that question quite a lot. So Select to Speak is really designed for people who can see well enough to read the screen, but they might have other eye conditions, such as eyestrain. For example, they may not be able to read for too long, their eyes get tired, or English may not be their first language, so they may need a bit of assistance there. And so what happens with Select to Speak is that you would select the text on the screen by dragging a finger, and when you release your finger, the text will be read to you by the text-to-speech synthesizer. And then, you will be able to, for example, slow it down, speed it up, and also as the text is being read, it will be highlighted so that you can follow visually the text that is being read to you. So it is not as powerful as TalkBack because it doesn’t really need to be, but in some respects, it is slightly similar to TalkBack.
JM: Now, does the user need to pick one or the other?
VT: At this point, they will work together, but we have not tested extensively so there may be some corner cases where they may conflict. But I’ve personally tried both, and I was even able to use the OCR capability with TalkBack. So the use case is that they are not intended to work together, but I’ve personally tested them and they seem to work okay. But this should not serve as an endorsement in any way.
VT: So try it at your own risk.
JM: Sure. Sounds good.
One of the other – well, it was a small change, but I think a big change for many people, having to do with, well, TalkBack, and other accessibility services was the change you’re making for the volume key shortcut.
VT: Yeah. So we’ve reduced the time – so there are several things that will happen with the shortcut. One is that now, the delay for launching and shutting off the services would be only one second versus three seconds as it was in Android Oreo. This was much requested by users and we heard the feedback –
JM: What if you’re pressing the up and down volume key together? Holding it down.
VT: Right. Right. Yes. So when you press the volume up and down keys together, you will now be able to – yeah. The delay will now only be one second.
The other big change is that now you can assign not just accessibility service that can be titled via volume shortcut, but also any of the accessibility features such as inverted colors, closed captioning, and – whatever is available in the accessibility settings panel can now be assigned as a toggle for the volume shortcut key.
JM: And you would just go in and you’d choose which one –
VT: Yes. You would go to Settings Accessibility. At the very top, there will be a menu called Volume Shortcut. When you go inside, you will be able to choose one of the selected – either one of the accessibility services or one of the accessibility features available on the device.
JM: A lot of customization. Of course, Android is a customizable platform, and that’s one way to do it. Of course, you’ve added lots to TalkBack over your time in Google, working with the others on the team. What would you say stands out as far as TalkBack features that you think make it unique or sets it apart?
VT: I would say that the new Focus Management we’ve introduced in 6.2 is going to make life easier for many people who are especially reliant on linear navigation, AKA, you know, they have to – they like to swipe left and right versus using touch exploration. Because the idea behind Focus Management is to keep track of the user’s location, for example when they move between different applications of screens and try to restart the focus so that users don’t have to constantly start from the very top of the screen to find their previous location. We currently work on web views, but for native views for most of the apps, users should see significant improvements in productivity and just an overall focus handling within TalkBack. I would say this is one of the highlights for 6.2 that we’ve introduced.
JM: You wanted to talk a little bit about BrailleBack and the work that’s being done on that, so go ahead and update people a little bit on what’s going on there.
VT: Yeah. We just pushed a new -- BrailleBack was supposed to be released some time ago, but we’ve decided to delay it a little bit longer because we got some new braille displays in to support, and as a result, we had some crashes reported by users. And so we just pushed a public beta that hopefully deals with all of these crashes that users reported to us. And expect a release of BrailleBack probably after the holidays, Independence Day holidays, so pretty soon. Again, just to remind people who have not heard our previous podcast, the new BrailleBack will have both grade 1 and grade 2 input support, we’ve introduced support for Orbit braille display -- Orbit Reader braille display, VarioUltra braille displays, and a few others. And obviously, the latest braille TTY libraries.
JM: As far as using a braille display with accessibility services with TalkBack, so can you pretty much now, with BrailleBack do the same commands as you might be able to do on a touch screen?
VT: Yeah. So I think where we’ve tried to keep theparody, you know, as close as possible, but yeah. More will be added as we move along.
JM: Can you assign them in BrailleBack yet or –
VT: No. They’re not designable.
JM: Oh. Okay.
VT: Just – yeah.
JM: At least, not at the moment. Okay. But of course, that’s available – that’s coming down the pike in the next –
JM: -- week or two. Let’s talk for a minute before we go – you have a lot of users of other platforms that might be looking at Android as, you know, an alternative or as a, you know, perhaps switching. What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about trying Android? Like, are there certain phones they should look at? Are there certain tips that you would give someone new who’s trying to jump into the waters of – to use Android? What would you tell them?
VT: Great question. We do get lots of users want to try Android, either as a low-cost alternative or just, they’re curious. But – however, many users don’t realize immediately that Android is much more diverse eco-system than, let’s say, iOS, and there are many phones, there are many versions of Android out there, and many of them are being supplemented or modified in one way or another by the manufacturer. And so, I would say the very first thing anyone who wants to try Android, you’d like to do, is to pick wisely the phone that you would like to buy, a device. And also ideally, I would encourage to choose something that has the most recent version of Android, because with every version of Android, we have been improving accessibility, and I would suggest you just stick with as pure Android experience as possible.
So just to give you a few ideas, there’s a project called Android One. It’s android.com/one, which we have partnered with multiple manufacturers, and one of the commitments they made was to keep Android as pure as possible. There’s obviously pixel phones that run pure Google software on it. There’s a new projects that’s been launched called Android go. Those are also low-cost devices that should have pure Google experience on them. So I would start there first.
Of course, Samsung has made their own modifications. If you like those, then of course, you’re welcome to try. But beware that this already means that you would be working with an interface that is not entirely controlled by Google.
JM: And Samsung, you know, sometimes bundles their own screen reader, although even if you got a Samsung phone, you can of course, bring TalkBack and use that –
JM: -- instead.
VT: You can still use both, and some users will like that. They like, again, choice; they like some things that voice assistant has introduced, and that’s totally fine. Just be aware that when you do get a phone from another manufacturer, you might be getting a slightly different user interface with some tweaks to the launcher and so on and so forth.
So I just want to let you know – you know, make sure that you just understand that some things that will be experiencing may not be entirely in TalkBack’s control.
JM: Sure. And to clarify, that’s android.com/O-N-E, spelled out --
VT: Yes. That’s right.
JM: -- for the Android one program. And of course, people now can contact the disability support desk as well if they have Android questions along with all the help and tutorials that are out there as well; right?
VT: Quickly, on Android P, just a few more minutes.
JM: Oh. Sure. Absolutely.
VT: We did mention that during Google I/O, but I wanted to reiterate again is that there will be – we will be introducing new services, one of them is called Sound Amplifier, and that will allow people to amplify their surrounding environments using their phone and the headphones. Not only amplify, but also change the equalization characteristics of the sound, so if you have hearing impairment or you just want to hear certain -- conversations around you better, you will have possibility to change the way the sound comes through in your ears. That has been much requested by users. And there may be some other surprises. Remember, P is still not in final release. We’re still in beta – I don’t know what the number is, but let’s just say, developer – I think it’s fourth edition, developer edition. Or third, something like that. So we’re still hoping to squeeze in a few surprises. So please look out for those. I’m super hopeful we can squeeze in a few more things.
JM: And P stands for – oh.
VT: Yeah. P stands for something.
JM: P stands for – they don’t even tell you, do they? So – awesome.
Hey, thank you so much.
VT: P stands for pleasure. I don’t know.
JM: There you go. Well, we really definitely appreciate you coming out. What’s the best way for people to get in contact with the Android accessibility team and keep up to date with what’s going on?
VT: So I would say the Google accessibility site, Google.com/accessibility, now has a blog. And we try to publish everything that’s new with Android and there on Google on the blogs. I would say this should be a first point of contact. If you have feedback, anything, whether it’s being a bug or whether it’s being feature requests, we now, in TalkBack, have a feature called Help and Feedback. Please, please take advantage of that. You go to TalkBack settings and you choose Help and Feedback, type in what’s on your mind. Well, not literally, but if you have a feature request or anything is not working, we are looking at that feedback. And that also includes other Google applications, all of them will have a Help and Feedback link. So please, please take advantage of that. And people on the help site are looking. And of course, as J.J already mentioned, there’s a disability support help desk. You’re welcome to use that communication channel as well.
JM: And that is firstname.lastname@example.org.
VT: And @GoogleAccess is our twitter handle. I assume everybody knows it, but in case if you didn’t, please tweet us as well.
JM: Great. Thank you so much, Victor, coming out. We definitely appreciate the Google support at the convention coverage, and we look forward to following Android P and beyond.
VT: Yes. Thanks so, so much, as always. And please come to our booth, our presentations, and just grab any Googler you happen to find at the conference and ask your questions and provide your feedback. We’re looking forward. Thanks again.
JM: Thank you.
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Joe Steinkamp is no stranger to the world of technology, having been a user of video magnification and blindness related electronic devices since 1979. Joe has worked in radio, retail management and Vocational Rehabilitation for blind and low vision individuals in Texas. He has been writing about the A.T. Industry for10 years and podcasting about it for nearly 5 years.