In May 2006 I wrote an article complaining about the lack of accessibility features in the iPod. I have been talking to Apple recently about accessibility across the product line and lo and behold Apple announce an accessible iPod Nano that answers all my criticisms. I am sure this is a coincidence, but I hope my original article may have had some influence.
The main new accessibility feature is Spoken Menus which does even more than its name implies. Most menus can now be read to you so it is possible to navigate around the menu structure without having to look at the screen. But what is more important is this is extended to all the metadata, such as artist, track name and playlist, so it is possible to find the specific track of interest without looking at the screen. Finally, warning messages, such as battery low, are verbalised.
The spoken menu feature is implemented by using the text to speech technology on the PC or Mac running iTunes. All the relevant snippets of text are converted into sound files and loaded on to the iPod. This obviously takes a little time and memory when first loaded up but on subsequent synchronisations the extra time is negligible.
Besides the spoken menus there is also an option to size text, so people with mild vision impairments will be able to read the screens more comfortably.
Among the other improvements is an enhanced audio recording feature. Many people with vision impairments now use audio recording as convenient way of making notes to themselves. Having this included on the Nano may mean that the number of devices they carry around will not increase.
The serial number is still white 6 point numbers and characters on the back of the Nano but it is now also available via one of the on-screen menus, so I can now read it.
These features are of great benefit to users who are blind or have a severe vision impairment. However, the features could be of great interest to users who have adequate or even 20/20 vision. There are many situations where looking at the screen is inconvenient, difficult or potentially dangerous; examples include standing in a train with your iPod in your pocket, lying in bed with your glasses off, sitting on the beach with sun glasses on, or driving your car. In all of these situations being able to control the iPod without looking at it would be beneficial.
So my one remaining criticism of Apple is that this information is not more widely disseminated. Go to the iPod Nano web site page and you will find nothing and not even a link. Go to the Apple shop and ask and no one will know about it and will not be able to demonstrate it. The only way to find out is to go to the Apple Accessibility page which has recently been greatly improved.
And my one suggestion is that Apple investigate further how the accelerometer could be used to navigate the menus. The scroll wheel is still a barrier to people with limited hand coordination whereas tilting maybe much easier.
I congratulate Apple on these new features and look forward ot further functions in the future.