Apple announced a number of accessibility features at WWDC 2021 that cover a wide variety of needs, including some for people who cannot normally touch or talk to their devices. With Assistive Touch, Sound Control, and other enhancements, these people have new options for interacting with an iPhone or Apple Watch.
We covered Assistive Touch when it was first announced, but we recently got a few more details. With this function, anyone who has an Apple Watch can operate it with one hand using various gestures. It happened when Apple heard from the community of people with limb differences – whether they are missing an arm, or cannot use it reliably, or anything else – that they liked the Apple Watch so much that they were tired of answering calls with their noses.
The research team has found a way to reliably detect the gestures of pinching a finger in the thumb or the clenching of the hand into a fist, based on how the watch is moved by them – no signals from the nervous system or the like are detected. These gestures, as well as duplicate versions of them, can be set for a variety of quick actions. This includes opening the “movement cursor,” a small point that mimics the movements of the user’s wrist.
Given how many people are out of hands, this could be a really helpful way to do basic messaging, calling, and health monitoring tasks without resorting to voice control.
Speaking of voice, that too is not available to everyone. However, many of those who cannot speak fluently can make a number of basic sounds that may mean something to those who have learned – not so much Siri. But a new accessibility option called “Sound Control” allows these sounds to be used as voice commands. You access it through switch controls, not audio or voice, and add an audio switch.
The setup menu lets the user choose from a variety of possible sounds: click, cluck, e, eh, k, la, muh, oo, pop, sh and more. Choosing one will invoke a quick training process so the user can make sure the system is getting the sound right, and then it can be set to do a variety of things from launching apps to asking frequently spoken questions or calling them up other tools.
For those who prefer to interact with their Apple devices through a switch system, the company has a big surprise: game controllers that once could only be used for gaming now work for general purposes too. Of particular note is the amazing Xbox Adaptive Controller, a hub, and a cluster of buttons, switches, and other accessories that make console gaming more accessible. This powerful tool is used by many and no doubt they will appreciate the fact that they don’t have to completely switch control methods when they are done with Fortnite and want to listen to a podcast.
Another interesting feature in iOS that is on the verge of accessibility is walking steadiness. Available to anyone with an iPhone, this feature tracks (as you might guess) the stability of the user’s walking. This metric, tracked over a day or week, can potentially give real insight into how and when a person’s locomotion is better and worse. It’s based on a range of data collected in the Apple Heart and Movement study, including actual falls and the erratic movements that led to them.
If the user is someone who recently received a prosthesis, had foot surgery, or is dizzy, knowing when and why they are at risk of falling can be very important. You may not realize it, but your movements may be less steady towards the end of the day, after climbing stairs, or after waiting a long time. It could also show continuous improvement as they get used to an artificial limb or chronic pain subsides.
How exactly this data can be used by an actual physical therapist or doctor is an open question, but most importantly, it can be easily tracked and understood by the users themselves.
Other helper features from Apple include new languages for voice control, improved acoustic customization of the headphones, support for bidirectional hearing aids and of course the addition of cochlear implants and oxygen tubes for Memoji. As an Apple rep put it, they want to accept differences not just in features, but also in personalization and the fun side.