A story on CNET mentions that Apple is looking at providing a general purpose protocol for accessibility accessories (joysticks, buttons and switches, and Braille devices) to connect to VoiceOver on mobile devices running iOS (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). Specifically, the story links to a patent application filed by Apple which describes how external peripherals could connect to VoiceOver on iOS (either wirelessly or through a cable) to provide access for "Users who are not physically present at a touch screen ... Users that are unable to provide touch input and/or are unable to view the screen of a touch screen".
These are precisely the use cases that WearaBraille seeks to address. So far, we have interfaced with VoiceOver by pretending to be an existing commercial Braille Display device (whose interface protocol was publicly available), but if Apple publishes a general purpose protocol (API) for accessibility accessories connecting to VoiceOver, we could potentially support a much broader set of controls for the iPhone and iPad. We will be excited to see what controls this protocol provides.
When we started the WearaBraille project, we imagined that it would connect to smartphones as though it was a normal QWERTY Bluetooth keyboard. We wanted to minimize the need for software drivers or special apps, and we believed we could handle the conversion from Grade 1 Braille (actually, Computer Braille) to the equivalent QWERTY characters. A lot of people asked about support for Grade 2 Braille, but we didn't think it made sense to put that level of complexity into the device. We also weren't sure what operations beyond text entry and simple cursor movement we could support.
Last year, having been impressed by VoiceOver on the iPhone, we saw that VoiceOver supports Bluetooth Braille displays (most of which include a Braille keyboard), and realized that we could talk to an iPhone in a different manner. After adding emulation of a Bluetooth Braille device to the WearaBraille prototype, we can now enter Grade 1 and Grade 2 Braille; in addition, we can navigate between applications and fields on the iPhone, turn the volume up or down, and even answer a phone call! Check out the YouTube video on the main WearaBraille page.
We're looking at whether we can provide this level of access to an Android phone. We have written a simple app which supports Grade 1 entry to demonstrate the concept, but until Android has a comprehensive screen-reader, it doesn't make sense to build out complete support for Braille input. We are keen to collaborate with Android developers who are working on screen-reader applications.
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