Smart Speakers, Speech Recognition, and Accessibility

Since the HomePod started shipping last week, I’ve taken to Twitter on multiple occasions to (rightfully) rant about the inability of Siri—and its competitors—to parse non-fluent speech. By “non-fluent speech,” I’m mostly referring to stutterers because I am one, but it equally applies to others, such as deaf speakers.

This is a topic I’ve covered before. There has been much talk about Apple’s prospects in the smart speaker market; the consensus seems to be the company lags behind Amazon and Google because Alexa and Google Home are smarter than Siri. What is missing from these discussions and from reviews of these products is the accessibility of a HomePod or Echo or Sonos.

As I see it, this lack of consideration, whether intentional or not, overlooks a crucial part of a speaker product’s story. Smart speakers are a unique product, accessibility-wise, insofar as the voice-first interaction model presents an interesting set of conditions. You can accommodate for blindness and low vision with adjustable font sizes and screen readers. You can accommodate physical motor delays with switches. You can accommodate deafness and hard-of-hearing with closed captioning and using the camera’s flash for alerts.

But how do you accommodate for a speech impairment?

This is a difficult, esoteric issue. It’s hard enough to teach a machine to fluently understand normal speech patterns; teaching machines to understand a stutterer (or even accents) is a nigh impossible task. Yet it must be done—speech delays are disabilities too, and to not acknowledge the issue is to do those of us with such a disability a gross disservice. Smart speakers are effectively inaccessible otherwise, because the AI just isn’t good enough at deciphering your speech. You become so frustrated that you don’t want to use the product. The value proposition is diminished because, well, why bother? If you have to repeat yourself over and over, all the skills or SiriKit domains in the world mean shit if you can’t communicate.

To be clear, speech recognition is an industry-wide issue. I focus on Apple because I’m entrenched in the company’s ecosystem, but it isn’t their burden to bear alone. I bought an Echo Dot on a lark in late 2016 to try it out, and Alexa isn’t markedly better in this regard either. It would behoove Apple and its competition to hire speech and language pathologists for its Siri/Alexa/Google team, if they haven’t already. Such a professional would provide valuable insight into different types of speech and how to best work with them. That’s their job.

The reason I am pushing so hard on this topic is not only that I have a personal stake in the matter. The truth is voice has incredible potential for accessibility, as I reported for TechCrunch last year. For someone with physical motor disabilities, using your voice to control HomeKit, for instance, makes smart home devices infinitely more accessible and enjoyable. That’s why this perspective matters so much.

Personally, I can’t wait to try HomePod. Of course SiriKit needs to be improved with more capability. But for me, capabilities mean little if I can’t get Siri to understand my commands. Apple’s track record regarding accessibility gives me hope they’ll fare better at solving the problem. For this reason alone, I don’t believe they’re as far behind in the game as conventional wisdom says it is. I want to enjoy talking to my computers as much as anyone else, but it needs this first.

How Apple is Revamping Its Software Development Cycle

Mark Gurman, reporting for Bloomberg:

Instead of keeping engineers on a relentless annual schedule and cramming features into a single update, Apple will start focusing on the next two years of updates for its iPhone and iPad operating system, according to people familiar with the change. The company will continue to update its software annually, but internally engineers will have more discretion to push back features that aren't as polished to the following year.

Software chief Craig Federighi laid out the new strategy to his army of engineers last month, according to a person familiar with the discussion. His team will have more time to work on new features and focus on under-the-hood refinements without being tied to a list of new features annually simply so the company can tout a massive year-over-year leap, people familiar with the situation say. The renewed focus on quality is designed to make sure the company can fulfill promises made each summer at the annual developers conference and that new features work reliably and as advertised.

As John Gruber notes, Apple's shift of its development system seems to be tacit acknowledgment of the software issues of the past few years—either things are bug-ridden, or, in the case of Messages for iCloud, don't ship on time. It's likely the company's senior executives are keenly aware of what's been made about this in the media and by developers, so as Gruber also notes, Gurman's story seems to reflect that.

The only real bummer in this report, however, is the mention of some neat iPad-centric features that are being pushed back to 2019. If this comes to pass, it'll be a real buzzkill for iPad enthusiasts like myself who hoped Apple would keep its foot on the gas in terms of iPad software development. Waiting a year for more features would suck.

‘Regarding the Em Dash’

Adam O’Fallon Price:

For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash. I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay. And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it—even disdain it. It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential. You can get along without it and most people do. I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing.

Like Price, I use em dashes often in my writing. A small but nerdy stylistic change I’ve made in my usage is to not leave a space between the dashes—I prefer how it looks without the space. It’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. As a freelancer, however, I realize my editors will be sure I conform to the publication’s style guide rather than my personal one.

(via Michael Rockwell)

Considering Type to Siri on iPad Pro

Federico Viticci, in his latest iPad Diaries column for MacStories:

The beauty of Type to Siri lies in the fact that it's regular Siri, wrapped in a silent interaction method that leaves no room for misinterpretation. For the tasks Siri is good at, there's a chance Type to Siri will perform better than its voice-based counterpart because typed sentences can't be misheard.

[...]

Type to Siri likely wasn't designed with this productivity angle in mind, but the mix of a physical keyboard, system frameworks, and SiriKit turns Siri into a useful, quiet iPad sidekick that saves me a few seconds every day and lets me keep my hands on the keyboard at all times.

Type to Siri wasn't built with productivity top of mind, but as I tweeted, Federico’s piece is a prime example of accessibility for everyone.

Report: Apple Delaying Some iOS 12 Features to 2019

Ina Fried, reporting for Axios:

Apple has shaken up its iOS software plans for 2018, delaying some features to next year in an effort to put more focus on addressing performance and quality issues, Axios has learned.

[...]

Software head Craig Federighi announced the revised plan to employees at a meeting earlier this month, shortly before he and some top lieutenants headed to a company offsite.

Fried reports some of the features being pushed back to next year include a Home screen redesign and changes to CarPlay.

While this story can be interpreted as iOS having its "Snow Leopard" moment, there is an argument to be made, as Stephen Hackett does, that Apple pitched High Sierra in a similar vein—but it hasn't really lived up to that promise.

Serenity Caldwell's First Impressions of HomePod

iMore's Serenity Caldwell was amongst a group of journalists invited to NYC last week by Apple for another briefing on HomePod. Her first impressions story is great—I especially enjoyed the fun facts. One such fact is HomePod has an accelorometer so it can detect when it's being moved, and it adjusts its audio output accordingly. Serenity's been killing it lately on Twitter, dropping serious HomePod knowledge on followers who ask questions.

See also: Serenity's piece on what other audio HomePod supports besides Apple Music.

Apple Previews Upcoming iOS 11.3 Update

iOS 11.3 isn’t a major update, but it does bring a few standout features: new Animoji, a “Business Chat” feature in Messages, and the more transparent battery metrics. Most interesting to me, however, is the Health Records feature in the Health app. As I tweeted this morning, I think there’s a potential opportunity for Apple to leverage iOS’s accessibility features to make accessing and reading one’s health data a more accessible experience.

Apple Announces HomePod Pre-Orders, Ship Date

Per Apple’s press release:

HomePod, the innovative wireless speaker from Apple, arrives in stores beginning Friday, February 9 and is available to order online this Friday, January 26 in the US, UK and Australia. HomePod will arrive in France and Germany this spring.

Of note, Apple says AirPlay 2, which is needed to connect two or more HomePods together, isn’t slated to appear until “later this year.”

It’s good to see Apple announce a ship date for this product, although it’s a bummer AirPlay 2 support won’t be coming until later. As for my interest in HomePod, I’m more excited about it than I am about the Amazon Echo or Google Home. It’ll be interesting to see how the review cycle goes; my biggest area of interest in HomePod is, of course, accessibility. The story there is a crucial element to its appeal to me and others who have speech delays.

WebAIM Conducts Screen Reader Use Survey

Insightful results of WebAIM's survey on screen reader usage. The charts clearly show most blind and visually impaired users prefer Apple's VoiceOver software. These results also help reaffirm Apple's place as the leader in accessibility—their lead over Android is substantial. In a broader sense, these charts show Apple and the tech industry at large in a different light; it gives key perspective on an area that most analysts tend to ignore.

On Lobsters and Pain

Karen Weintraub reports for the NYT on Switzerland banning killing lobsters by putting them in boiling water. The idea is there are more humane ways to kill the animal since they’re presumed to feel pain—a point which is debated by scientists.

I’ve not cooked a live lobster myself, but everything I’ve read from chefs say the best way to kill a lobster prior to cooking is to quickly cut at the head.

On Blink-182 and Aliens

Weird story on ex-Blink member Tom DeLonge by Drew Millard for The Outline:

This year, NASA will be launching a satellite called TESS, whose job it will be to map out all the stars we can see, so that we can identify planets that aren’t too far from their sun to be really cold, but not so close that they’d be too hot. (This ideal space is called the “Goldilocks Zone.”) From there, a high-powered space telescope will hone in on those planets and analyze their wavelengths, looking for these biosignature gases. By the calculations of Sara Seager, the MIT astronomer who conceptualized the project, that this process, once complete, will provide us with exactly one life-bearing planet besides our own.

Tom DeLonge, however, thinks the aliens are already here. During his music-making prime, DeLonge had long been fascinated by conspiracy theories. He referenced the alleged 50s-era alien hunters Majestic 12 on Enema of the State’s “Aliens Exist”; the sole album by his Box Car Racer side project was peppered with angsty lyrics about how frustrated he was with the lack of government disclosure about various secrets; in 2001 he got married on Coronado, an island near San Diego that was once the site of an alleged alien abduction. (From here on out, just mentally insert the word “alleged” whenever you see something that seems dubious, because shit’s about to get alleged as hell.)

But around the time of his split with blink, he went full tinfoil. He began giving conspiracy-laden interviews to incredulous outlets, who gleefully racked up clicks by playing up the incongruity of the blink-182 guy talking about aliens. He became a curious footnote in last year’s presidential election when a Wikileaks dump of Hillary Clinton’s emails revealed he’d been communicating with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta about aliens, which in part led to him being named “UFO Researcher of the Year” by OpenMinds.tv.

I’m not inclined to believe aliens exist, but I do have some Blink-182 in my Apple Music library. Their new stuff may not be great, as Millard writes, but their back catalog—with DeLonge—is chock-full of some pretty great tunes.

Why Stephen Hackett Bought the iMac Pro

In his column this month at iMore, Stephen writes:

The standard iMac Pro is still a lot faster than my 2015 could ever be, but then I started looking at a fully loaded 2017 5K iMac. If I opted for third-party RAM, I could pick up a 4.2GHz i7 iMac with a 1TB SSD for $3,099. With this iMac, I would still have a noticeably faster machine on my desk, but with a lot more cash in the bank.

I decided to take the conservative route, so I ordered the regular iMac. It showed up the day after Christmas. I slapped 32GB of OWC RAM in it — for a total of 40GB — and migrated my data from my trusty 2015 model.

Unfortunately, it didn't take long to realize that I had made a mistake. Even during the migration, I could hear the new iMac's fan blowing, and once I was logged in, it was even louder.

Apple Investors Write Open Letter on Children and Tech

David Gelles at the NYT has a story on an open letter by Janas Partners & Calstrs to Apple pushing the company to offer, among other things, more granular parental controls on iOS. The idea here is more parental controls will help parents better govern their children’s time with tech.

As I said to Carolina Milanesi and John Gruber on Twitter today, the onus is ultimately on educators and parents to monitor how much screen time a child gets. More granular parental controls are good, but it isn’t the responsibility of tech companies to limit how much time children have with technology. As I was taught in my early childhood development classes years back, that responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the adults who care for our children.

See also: Apple’s statement on this matter, per Rene Ritchie.

‘World Leaders on Twitter’

Twitter on Friday published a blog post in which the company explains why it won’t ban heads of state from its platform. Of course, “world leaders” is really a euphemism for “Donald Trump.” Twitter writes:

Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.

What Twitter is saying is, despite Trump’s proclivity for threatening nuclear war, they won’t take action because apparently threatening war isn’t in violation of their terms of service.

‘The Snapping Point’

I enjoyed this story by Casey Newton and Nick Statt for The Verge on Snapchat and its founder and CEO, Evan Spiegel.

The public face and chief strategist at the company has been Spiegel, an obsessive product mind who reveres Steve Jobs, former employees say. (Spiegel has a portrait of Jobs hanging in his office.) Like Jobs, Spiegel is known to involve himself in seemingly minor decisions involving office aesthetics. He once ordered employees’ individual trash cans in New York City be removed in favor of communal receptacles, because he disliked the look of so many trash cans in the office, one source said. This week, he personally co-sponsored the company’s New Year’s Eve party, where public snaps were banned.

Despite my tech savvy, Snapchat continues to befuddle me. I’m old.

On the iMac Pro’s T2 Chip

In his More Color column for Macworld this week, Jason Snell writes about what the T2 chip in the new iMac Pro does. (My Late 2016 Touch Bar MacBook Pro has a T1.)

Notably, here’s an excerpt on booting up the machine:

When you start up the iMac Pro, the familiar Apple logo appears almost immediately. This is a sign that the T2 is taking control. For security reasons, the T2 is the iMac Pro hardware’s “root of trust,” and it validates the entire boot process when the power comes on. The T2 starts up, checks things out, loads its bootloader, verifies that it’s legitimate and cryptographically signed by Apple, and then moves on to the next part of the boot process.

This new boot process means there’s also a new utility for Mac users to get to know: Startup Security Utility, which you can only access by booting into Recovery mode by holding down Command-R while starting up. Startup Security Utility gives the T2 guidance about just how strict it should be when judging whether it should boot your computer.