Sunday, May 19, 2024

Google, Apple, and Microsoft make products friendlier to users with disabilities

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It’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day today, and Big Tech firms have accordingly issued a flurry of announcements about how they’ll make their products friendlier to people whose use of devices is hindered by disabilities.

Most coverage of Google’s I/O developer event this week may have focused on its generative AI news, but the company also announced an expansion of Project Gameface to the Android platform. Google announced that project last year—it’s an open-source, hands-free gaming “mouse” that uses the webcam to capture the gamer’s head movements and facial gestures, translating them into cursor movements via the magic of machine learning. Now Google is open-sourcing more of the code so developers can make better Android accessibility apps.

Gaming may have been the inspiration for Project Gameface—specifically, the needs of a gaming streamer named Lance Carr, who has muscular dystrophy—but the applications clearly go far beyond, with Google promising use cases in educational and work settings too.

In a similar vein, Apple yesterday also announced an upcoming iPhone and iPad feature called Eye Tracking. This does what the name suggests, giving users a way to navigate through and activate the elements of an app, just by letting the front-facing camera track their eye movements.

Apple also revealed other accessibility features that will be coming soon: Music Haptics, which will help deaf or hard-of-hearing iPhone users experience music with the aid of “taps, textures, and refined vibrations”; Vocal Shortcuts, which will let users trigger complex tasks by uttering simple sounds; and a bunch of new accessibility features specific to the CarPlay and visionOS environments.

Meanwhile, on the intriguing-hardware front, we have Microsoft’s announcement yesterday of the Proteus controller for Xbox and PC gamers.

Designed by peripherals startup ByoWave, the Proteus is a kit comprising “snap and play” parts that let people customize a wireless controller according to their needs. There’s a “mother cube” that serves as the controller’s brain, a cube features the directional pad, a piece with a mini control stick, another two providing left and right triggers, and so on. There are many possible configurations, from traditional controller layouts to wand-like columns and tabletop-friendly rectangles. Preorders are open now, with the kit ($255 to first-comers, $299 thereafter) shipping in the fall.

Microsoft also used the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day to promise fixes for what some gamers with disabilities experienced from a major change that the company made last November when it started blocking the use of unauthorized accessories with the Xbox console. This has been an issue for those who had put together custom controller setups to fit their unique requirements, with equipment coming from small specialist manufacturers that aren’t official Microsoft licensees.

Part of Microsoft’s solution is for those manufacturers to get in touch and make their controllers official, but the company is also updating its own Adaptive Controller, which the Xbox always accepts, to expand support for more accessories. The $99 Adaptive Controller is a clever piece of gear that includes some built-in controller functionality of its own, but more importantly acts as a hub for specialized equipment, such as switches that are controlled by biting, sipping, and puffing with the mouth, or with one’s feet.

“We appreciate and acknowledge that gaming with a disability is highly individualistic, and the solution for one may not be the solution for all,” the company said.

More news below.

David Meyer

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