Leopard First Looks

First Look: Leopard first looks: Universal Access

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Editor’s Note: In order to familiarize you with the next major version of Mac OS X, code-named Leopard, we’re taking a closer look at each of the features Apple has unveiled. This installment focuses on the enhanced version of VoiceOver that makes up part of OS X 10.5’s Universal Accessibility capabilities.

When Apple introduced Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, it included a new element to Universal Access, the suite of utilities for users with physical impairments. That new element, VoiceOver, would recite the name of any onscreen items you hovered your mouse over using one of Apple’s robotic text-to-speech voices.

The version of the VoiceOver utility that will ship with OS X 10.5 appears to be quite similar to the original Tiger version, but with some important improvements—support for Braille displays and note takers, control over the amount of information VoiceOver recites, easier navigation, and a new computer voice that speaks in a more natural way.

How it works

VoiceOver uses tools built into the Mac OS to communicate to users what their Mac is doing. Specifically, it uses OS X’s built in Accessibility Hierarchy data structure that represents the user interface. When you switch VoiceOver on, it looks for the name of objects users interact with—buttons, fields, and menus, for example—and speaks the name of the selected item (and its environment—the name of its host application and enclosing window, for example—when it’s first called).

What’s changed

Apple has provided precious few details on Universal Access’ new capabilities, so our knowledge is sketchy. Here’s what we’ve been able to glean from this week’s WWDC keynote, plus other information gleaned from Apple.

The original iteration of VoiceOver tends to offer more information than most people need—reciting the name of an application, its window, the name of a tab within that window, and where that tab stands in the window’s order of tabs (Tab 3 of 4, for example). Apple’s Leopard Sneak Peek page devoted to Accessibility hints that VoiceOver can be configured to supply more or less audio feedback—reciting the name of a button, for example, but not its status.

That same Sneak Peek page also suggests that the Mac OS will be easier to navigate thanks to VoiceOver’s ability to navigate either sequentially—from the topmost button to a field to its right—or by object—quickly dashing from one button to the next, skipping other objects in between.

What’s new

Leopard’s VoiceOver will support Grade 2 contracted Braille devices. Such devices include displays that communicate through a silicone ribbon or pad that changes shape to mimic traditional braille characters as well as note-takers, devices that include special braille keyboards. Plug one of these Grade 2 devices into the USB port of a Mac running Leopard, and it should work out of the box, allowing both braille input and output.

The “Wow” feature for most users will be the inclusion of Apple’s new Alex voice, a synthesized English voice that sounds far more natural than what Apple has offered previously. There’s a sample of the voice on the Sneak Peek page linked above. The brief sample shows that not only can Alex use punctuation in a natural-sounding way, he prefaces new thoughts with a short breath, which lends a nice realism to his speech. During the keynote presentation, Steve Jobs demonstrated that the Alex voice remains clearly understandable even when sped up to move more quickly through text. (An audio excerpt from Steve Jobs’ keynote address can be found at time index 8 minutes and 59 seconds in Macworld Podcast #48.)

This voice will be available not only in VoiceOver but in any application that users Apple’s text-to-speech capabilities—TextEdit and iChat, for example. Leopard is also slated to support foreign language speech synthesizers, including support for two-byte languages such as Japanese and Chinese. And you’ll be able to sync your VoiceOver preferences with other Macs through your .Mac account.

Who’s it for

Query the typical Mac user, and they’ll likely tell you that they weren’t aware of VoiceOver’s existence. There’s very little about the new version of VoiceOver that’s going to change that. Those with physical impairments will laud its improvements. Those who don’t require VoiceOver’s services may still be tempted to have their Mac read to them now that it contains a voice that’s worth listening to.

What’s missing

We’ve seen nothing of the VoiceOver interface so there’s no telling just how configurable its audio feedback will be. Apple’s revealed enough about the Alex voice to assure us that it will be just another choice in the list of synthesized voice, which you’ll be able to select from the Text to Speech tab within the Speech system preference.

What it means

For those with physical impairments VoiceOver has been a great, and inexpensive, help; third-party add-ons that provided VoiceOver’s services cost several thousand dollars. But the original VoiceOver tends to be a little verbose. Allowing users to tell VoiceOver to cut to the chase will make using the program less tedious.

Physically impaired or not, users driven to distraction by Apple’s robotic voice often turned to the more natural synthesized voices offered by Cepstral. The existence of Alex is going to make these voices unnecessary for a number of people. It’s also likely to nudge those who wouldn’t have dreamt of using a talking Mac to see what a Mac running Leopard has to say.

[ Senior Editor Christopher Breen wrote about Tiger’s Universal Accessibility features in the Tiger preview from the July 2005 issue of Macworld. ]

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