What Face ID Means for Accessibility

When Apple introduced Touch ID with the iPhone 5s in 2013, I wrote a piece in which I posited how the fingerprint reader would be beneficial in an accessibility context. I wrote, in part:

What I see Touch ID doing is helping people with the aforementioned acuity/motor issues by allowing them to simply use their thumbprint (or other finger) to unlock their phone, password-free. More specifically, Touch ID would free users from the struggle of manually entering in their passcode.

My idea here is not so much of convenience (which is nice) but rather of usability. I know many folks with vision-and motor-related issues who bemoan iOS’s passcode prompt because not only does it take time, but also entering in said code isn’t necessarily an easy task. In fact, more than a few lament this so often that they forego a passcode altogether because it’s time-consuming and a pain (sometimes literally) to enter.

Four years later, the advent of Face ID in the iPhone X represents the next step in biometric security. But it’s something else too—for as great as Touch ID has been in terms of security, convenience, and accessibility, Face ID is even better. In my brief time with iPhone X so far, I have found Apple’s facial recognition technology to best Touch ID in virtually every meaningful way. Not to mention it’s pretty damn cool knowing I have the ability to unlock my phone and buy things with my face.

Living on the bleeding-edge is fun.

Facing My Face ID Conundrum

In my first impressions story, I noted how Face ID on iPhone X has been “the most revelatory aspect” of the device thus far. What’s revelatory about it is how it taught me something about myself: namely, that I’m an edge case. For the first time using an Apple product, I have felt like I’ve been forced to adapt to the technology rather than have the tech adapt to me.

Here’s the thing. I have a condition called strabismus, which means one or both of the eyes are not set straight. For me, mine is the left eye—ironically, my strong eye—and it seems to wreak havoc with the TrueDepth camera system. In my initial attempts to set up Face ID, I could not get Face ID to unlock my phone. The setup process went smoothly—Face ID successfully mapped my face, but again, it was unable to recognize me when unlocking the phone or logging into an app like 1Password. It was highly frustrating.

As Face ID is the marquee feature of iPhone X, this was bad.

After some troubleshooting, however, there was a solution. Following some tests, I determined I’m one of those users for which requiring “eye contact” with iPhone X just will not work. Hence, the solution was to go into Face ID’s settings and turn off the Require Attention feature (Settings > Face ID & Passcode > Require Attention for Face ID). With Require Attention disabled, Face ID works like a charm. Doing things such as unlocking my phone, logging into 1Password, and paying with Apple Pay all are effortless.

The only caveat to this is I’m still not used to holding my phone far enough away such that Face ID can read my face. Because of my low vision, I instinctively hold my phone close to my face because I need it close to see. Face ID obviously can’t see me at this angle, so I tend to get the haptic, can’t-log-you-in “head shake” a lot. I’ve only had the iPhone X for almost two weeks now, so it’ll take me a bit more time to develop a new muscle memory. I can deal with this, though, because I know the technology isn’t faulty nor did Apple give me a lemon of a review unit, as I initially feared. Everything works as intended, as designed—I just need to learn new habits.

Especially with iPhone X, there’s ten years of iPhone convention to unlearn.

Why Face ID Beats Touch ID

So what makes Face ID even more accessible than Touch ID?

For one thing, setup is far faster and less taxing. Enrolling in Touch ID is by no means difficult, but it is relatively slow and “precise.” iOS prompts you to move your finger this way and that way, and will bug you when you don’t follow directions. If you’re someone with limited fine-motor skills, getting Touch ID set up can be a literal pain along with being a figurative one.

By contrast, setting up Face ID at least feels more streamlined and less tedious. While moving your head around “like you’re drawing a circle with your face,” as Apple described it to me, can be difficult for individuals with certain gross motor limitations, there is an accessibility option to eliminate that step. (Instead of moving your head around to get the depth map, the system will take a single shot at a fixed angle.) If rolling your head around is impossible or bothersome, Apple has you covered right from within the setup UI. Again, Touch ID is no slouch, but I have found, anecdotally, that setting up Face ID is much simpler and quicker than ever. Surely this is due to Apple having years to study user data and fine-tune BiometricKit.

Beyond setup, another area where Face ID excels is its presence removes a point of friction (the Touch ID sensor) for many disabled users. However accessible Touch ID may be, the fact remains reaching and/or pushing that button is problematic for many. Instead of tactilely authenticating for everything, now all someone has to do is literally look at their phone. It’s no doubt convenient as well, but importantly for accessibility, Face ID is freedom. It’s freedom knowing there’s a better way forward technologically, and freedom knowing there’s less one less possible barrier.

The way Apple has built Face ID, hardware- and software-wise, into iOS quite literally makes using iPhone a “hands-free” experience in many regards. And that’s without discrete accessibility features like Switch Control or AssistiveTouch. That makes a significant difference to users, myself included, whose physical limitations make even the most mundane tasks (e.g., unlocking one’s device) tricky. As with so many accessibility-related topics, the little things that are taken for granted are always the things that make the biggest difference in shaping a positive experience.

On Face ID and Apple Pay

I’ve gone on the record (here and here) to laud Apple Pay as an accessible way to pay for stuff. I’ve used it every chance I get since its debut in 2014, and still can’t get over how well done it is. It’s a truly magical service.

Face ID on iPhone X takes Apple Pay to the next level. In the handful of times I’ve used Apple Pay on iPhone X (to pay for Lyft rides), Face ID has provided an even more seamless experience. Like with unlocking, the advantage of Apple Pay being tied to Face ID is you confirm the purchase with your face. (You double-press the side button to initiate, but that’s it.) The hands-free nature of it means I needn’t worry about getting my thumb in the right position or spend time waiting for authorization.

Despite how good it is, the thing about Apple Pay on the phone is, since I’m an Apple Watch wearer, I don’t use the service often on my iPhone. It’s even better from my wrist, but I’m glad Apple made the gestures more consistent across devices. Nonetheless, for the times when I do use Apple Pay on my iPhone, Face ID makes it quicker, easier, and more accessible.

A Brief Note on the Touch ID API

It’s worth mentioning how much of an impact I believe the public Touch ID/Face ID API has had on accessibility. To me, it’s a sleeper hit.

The reason for this is because, by giving developers the power to integrate biometrics into their apps, Apple is effectively ensuring third-party apps be more accessible. I continue to agree with Marco Arment that the company should make accessibility a tentpole of the app-vetting process, but as it stands currently, just the fact alone that App Store apps have access to these biometric features puts them on solid ground, accessibility-wise. That I have been able to use my thumb (and now my face) to get into my 1Password means that app already is pretty accessible, even without critiquing any design details. It sure beats typing a passcode every time.

Of course there’s more developers need to do to ensure their app(s) are accessible by all, but the API sure puts them and users ahead. It’s not trivial, and Apple is to be commended for perhaps having the foresight to realize the benefits here. It was a huge addition to the toolkit.

The Future of the (Accessible) Smartphone

Everyone who has an iPhone X right now is still in the honeymoon phase, so time will tell how feelings about the evolve as the device ages. In my usage so far, it’s clear to me Apple built iPhone X in such a way that the so-called “future” of the smartphone is an accessible one.

iPhone X takes many leaps forward, but Face ID is the biggest. It’s markedly better than its predecessor, which is high praise for a feature as beloved as Touch ID. There was some adjustment necessary on my part, but I can’t speak effusively enough about Face ID. It’s delightful, reliable, and accessible.

Apple Pushes Back HomePod Release to ‘Early 2018’

Nicole Nguyen, reporting for BuzzFeed:

In June, Apple announced that it was challenging Amazon's sleeper hit Amazon Echo with its own voice assistant-enabled speaker, called HomePod, and said the product would be released in December 2017. Today, the company released a statement that the speaker will be delayed until 2018: "We can't wait for people to experience HomePod, Apple's breakthrough wireless speaker for the home, but we need a little more time before it's ready for our customers. We'll start shipping in the US, UK, and Australia in early 2018."

The company also said “we need a little more time” when AirPods were delayed last year.

‘Remember When the Warriors Stunk?’

Scott Cacciola, writing for the New York Times:

Given the events of more recent seasons, few people on the planet have greater perspective on the team’s emergence as an all-universe juggernaut than Roye and two colleagues who have been staples of the Warriors’ radio and television broadcasts for decades: Jim Barnett, who has worked as the Warriors’ TV analyst since 1985, and Bob Fitzgerald, who has done play-by-play of the team’s games since 1993. They appreciate the highs.

“Because we know what the bottom looked like,” Fitzgerald said.

The bottom looked like 12 straight losing seasons, from 1994 to 2006, a period Fitzgerald assessed as “general hopelessness.” The bottom looked like nightly opportunities to set records for offensive futility. The bottom looked like the coach getting choked at practice by one of his players. The bottom looked like a sad stream of 20-point deficits and endless amounts of airtime to fill.

I’ve lived in the Bay Area my entire life, and Barnett has been the only Warriors color analyst I’ve ever known. Aside from the Run TMC years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Warriors were bad for a long time. Now, they’ve won two titles and the NBA juggernaut.

My First Week with iPhone X

It’s been a week now that I’ve had an iPhone X, a review unit provided to me by Apple. As someone who’s been using iPhones from the beginning in 2007, I’ve found the new device to be both futuristic yet familiar. Most importantly, however, is the utter delight I feel when I pick up the iPhone X. There is a “magic” and “fun factor” to the phone that I haven’t felt since getting AirPods last year—in many ways, big and small, iPhone X epitomizes Apple.

Here are some assorted thoughts on iPhone X after a week.

Face ID. Face ID has proven to be the most revelatory aspect of iPhone X so far. It turns out, I’m an edge case. When I was initially setting up the phone, I grew frustrated by Face ID not recognizing me or unlocking my phone. I was convinced Apple had given me a lemon, but that wasn’t the case. I theorized perhaps my problem was due to the strabismus in my left eye, and it appears my hunch was correct. The condition, which means one or more of the eyes isn’t set straight, seems to give the TrueDepth camera system fits. This explains why unlocking iPhone X is so difficult—it isn’t that the technology is faulty; it’s that the camera has trouble telling whether or not I’m looking at the phone.

After some troubleshooting, I’ve determined Face ID works best for me with Require Attention turned off. The success rate when unlocking feels exponentially higher than with Require Attention turned on. So, off it goes.

Size & Weight. I love how iPhone X feels like an iPhone 8 (or 7 or 6) in my hand yet I still get the big display of the Plus model. It’s the best of both worlds. The other thing that’s nice, size-wise, is how much better iPhone X feels in my pocket or against my ear during phone calls. For as much as I loved the Plus for its big screen, I can’t deny the sheer size of the object wasn’t annoying to carry around at times. I adapted, but it was a trade-off nonetheless. Hence why I’m so smitten with iPhone X’s size: I don’t have to compromise with it.

The Screen. The iPhone X’s OLED screen is the best I’ve ever seen, on any device. Colors are vibrant and text is razor-sharp. And True Tone is great too. It’s the most accessible screen I’ve ever seen. I think Apple did the right thing in embracing “the notch,” and developers are better off embracing it as well. It doesn’t bother me one bit; in fact, I actually like how it looks.

Home Gestures. It hasn’t taken me long to acclimate to the lack of a Home button on iPhone X. I have no problems unlocking, exiting an app, or launching the multitasking view. Going back to my girlfriend’s iPhone SE or her mom’s 7 now feels decidedly archaic. Even using my 10.5” iPad Pro feels weird because it has a button.

Wireless Charging. My review kit from Apple included the Belkin charging mat, and I love using the thing. I’ve seen other reviewers complain of the iPhone X buzzing off the pad and not charge, but I’ve not encountered that myself. I also have no trouble finding the right spot to place the phone to charge it. Maybe I’m lucky? In any case, I think some in the Apple community are underestimating the benefits of wireless charging. I’ve heard and read a lot of people say it isn’t easier than using Lightning, but that sentiment overlooks the accessibility gains. In the same way AirPods saved me from the tedium of plugging in EarPods, the Belkin charging mat saves me from plugging in the Lightning cable. Especially on my jet black 7 Plus, the finish was so dark that I had trouble finding the port because I couldn’t see it. Add that with the fine-motor gymnastics I sometimes needed to perform to plug in the cable, and it’s obvious why I’m so bullish on wireless charging. It’s not only convenient—it makes charging my phone more accessible too.

Silver Versus Space Gray. I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of the space gray iPhone X. It isn’t that it looks bad, but the color seems “washed out” to me. I much prefer the silver model, as the back is almost a pearly kind of white. The stainless steel ring is stunning as well. The iPhone X screams high-end—it’s easily the nicest iPhone since the 5/5S. The craftsmanship is exquisite. It looks and feels like the future of the smartphone.

On Apple Park

Wallpaper's recent feature story on Apple Park, heavy with insight from Jony Ive, is a good read and beautifully photographed. One part that made me chuckle is the bit about the 4,000-seat cafe that has a kitchen that's "one the biggest kitchens in the US." It has me damn curious over how much time Ive spent designing that space.

Kitchen aside, I can totally see how Apple and Foster+Partners view the Steve Jobs Theater as the crown jewel of the campus. I attended the inaugural media event in September, and was in awe the entire time over how beautiful it is. It truly is a marvel of architectural engineering—surely, as Wallpaper alludes to in its piece, the ultimate Apple product.

iOS Gains Ability to Show iTunes, App Store Purchase History

Chance Miller, reporting for 9to5 Mac:

Apple today is making it easier for users to view purchase history directly from their iOS devices. The company revealed in an updated support document today that you can now view your App Store and iTunes purchase history in the Settings app on iOS.

Previously, as the support document notes, this functionality was only available through iTunes on Mac and PC. While you could view purchase history via the App Store and iTunes Store on iOS, it was purely for re-downloading purposes and didn’t show detailed pricing information.

Good news—and worthy of a bonafide finally.

Twitter Ups Character Length to 280

Twitter’s Aliza Rosen, writing for the company blog:

In September, we launched a test that expanded the 140 character limit so every person around the world could express themselves easily in a Tweet. Our goal was to make this possible while ensuring we keep the speed and brevity that makes Twitter, Twitter. Looking at all the data, we’re excited to share we’ve achieved this goal and are rolling the change out to all languages where cramming was an issue.*

During the first few days of the test many people Tweeted the full 280 limit because it was new and novel, but soon after behavior normalized (more on this below). We saw when people needed to use more than 140 characters, they Tweeted more easily and more often. But importantly, people Tweeted below 140 most of the time and the brevity of Twitter remained.

I can see where more characters would be useful, but the timeline’s brevity is paramount. The (old?) 140-character limit is a core tenent of the service’s strengths.

The iPhone X Goes to Disneyland

in a clever conceit for a review, TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino took his iPhone X review unit on a family trip to Disneyland. His reviews, along with those by BuzzFeed’s Nicole Nguyen, are always the ones I read first. So good.

In particular, this bit from Panzarino’s story made my heart sing:

It’s worth noting now that toggling attention detection off for Face ID is also going to be good for accessibility reasons. Vision-impaired folks, especially, will benefit.

In fact, I believe strongly that Face ID is going to be an incredible boon to accessibility. Touch ID is difficult to operate for many with motor skills or mobility issues, forcing them to rely on a simple passcode or none at all. Face ID’s ability to passively know who you are and allow you to begin taking action right from the home screen with VoiceOver is going to be killer. Apple has had a massive lead in building accessibility into its products for some time now, and this is only going to widen the gap.

I can’t wait to put iPhone X through its paces.

Thoughts on the Sport Loop Band

This month, my girlfriend gifted me an Apple Watch Series 3 (with LTE) as a late birthday gift.

She got me a 42mm Nike+ model in space gray with a black Sport Loop. I’ve been wearing it a few weeks now after using a stainless steel original Apple Watch since May 2015, and I like it very much. The aluminum is super lightweight and the space gray color looks sharp. And despite much consternation from people on Twitter, the red dot on the Digital Crown doesn’t bother me one bit. In practice, I don’t notice it unless I look down at my watch or when I take it off at night to charge. In fact, it makes for a nice accent against the watch’s dark case.

I’ll write a full review of my new Apple Watch in the coming weeks, but for now, the one aspect of it that has stood out to me the most is the aforementioned Sport Loop band. It is a great band—it looks good, feels good, and most importantly for me, it’s highly accessible. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the Sport Loop has quickly become my favorite band; I love it.

Of course comfort and style matter—Apple Watch is as much about fashion as it is function—but what sets the Sport Loop apart in my opinion is its accessibility. The accessibility of Apple Watch bands is I think an underrated aspect of the experience. If a band is hard to get on and off, it sullies the overall view of the device because the bands are tough to manipulate. If you can’t get the watch on, you can’t use it. Hence, for someone like me who has fine-motor delays, how a band works functionally is just as important, if not more so, than how it looks aesthetically. “Can I get this on?” is a crucial question.

From an accessibility perspective, what makes the Sport Loop shine is the “hook-and-loop” fastening mechanism. Getting the Apple Watch on and off is effortless, at least for me. There are no pins to deal with, like on the Sport or nylon bands—all you do is pull the band so it’s as tight as you want and simply press it against the other side to close. Although I’ve grown adept at getting my Sport and nylon bands on my wrist successfully, there’s a fluidity to using the Sport Loop that my other bands can’t match. And it’s all due to the Velcro, which is a highly accessible material. Its appeal is further boosted by the fact this Velcro is the nicest I’ve ever seen. Velcro is decidedly more utilitarian than elegant, but Apple made it both.

I’ve long maintained Apple’s most accessible bands are the Loop varieties that use magnets for fastening. The Sport Loop with its Velcro joins this group. While needs and tolerances vary, in general I would say if you’re someone who has fine-motor delays, any of the Loop bands are a terrific choice. The Sport Loop in particular is easy to put on, lightweight, and stylish for anyone who leads an active lifestyle. I’m even thinking about wearing my black Sport Loop to a family wedding in SoCal this weekend.

Apple: iPhone X Pre-Orders 'Off the Charts'

Aishwarya Venugopal and Arjun Panchadar, reporting for Reuters:

Apple Inc quashed concerns of muted demand for its iPhone X on Friday, saying pre-orders for the 10th anniversary phone were “off the charts."

[...]

“We can see from the initial response, customer demand is off the charts,” an Apple spokeswoman told Reuters.

“We’re working hard to get this revolutionary new product into the hands of every customer who wants one, as quickly as possible.”

As of this writing, Apple is quoting 5-6 weeks for shipping.

On Apple Watch’s Swim Tracking

Rob Verger, writing for Popular Science:

Apple built its own algorithms to discern the stroke of swimmers of all skill levels, as well the calories they’re burning. The process involved gathering data from more than 700 swimmers and over 1,500 swim sessions. And Apple gathered even more data from people swimming in place (in an "endless" pool) while wearing a mask that descended from the ceiling.

[…]

The watch uses the gyroscope and accelerometer to track the motion of your strokes, but in open water, it can leverage another sensor: the GPS chip. If you’re swimming in the ocean or a lake, your watch uses that to determine how fast and how far you go. But GPS signals don’t travel through H2O. Luckily, people are likely to do freestyle in open water and for that stroke, your arms regularly break the surface. Apple sets the GPS chip in acquisition mode for the whole swim. It looks for the satellite signal each time your hand rises from the water. “We’re trying to catch it every single time,” says Ron Huang, Apple’s director of engineering for location and motion services.

The accelerometer measures motion, and the gyroscope determines how many degrees the watch is rotating per second. Together, those sensors help Apple figure out the stroke type.

Even as someone who dislikes the water—there was a traumatic incident as a child—I found this story fascinating. Apple continues to pull the strong on its health initiatives, of which swimming is a part. Fun read.

(via Serenity Caldwell)

On Accessibility

Brent Simmons wrote a great post on his blog about the importance of embracing accessibility features on the Mac and iOS. More developers, indie and big corporation alike, should heed his advice. Accessibility is never something you “don’t need” or a thing you bolt on later. To be fully accessible is to make accessibility part of the design process from the very beginning—which is exactly what Apple does in their products. It’s why they lead the industry in this regard.

Using ARKit at the Ballpark

Jason Snell got to try out MLB At Bat’s new AR features at a Giants game:

If you don’t know about Statcast, here’s the deal: Every major-league ballpark is equipped with imaging equipment that allows MLB to measure, at a rate of 60 frames per second, the position of every player on the field, as well as the location of the ball. It’s a technological revolution that is allowing teams and researchers alike to understand aspects of baseball that were previously thought to be unmeasurable, because they go beyond traditional stats that simply measure the outcomes of individual plays.

That data is available in real time—and it’s being tapped by the MLB At Bat app to power its augmented-reality view. Sitting at AT&T Park in San Francisco, we were able to look at an iPad pointed at the field and see floating icons with pictures of each player on the field—and the icons that moved as the players moved. Tapping on the shortstop’s icon added a colored shape indicating his fielding range, the area where he’d be expected to stop a ball and make an out. When a runner took a lead, the app could display the length of his lead.

As a huge tech and sports nerd, I highly enjoyed reading Snell’s story. From an accessibility perspective, I’m curious to see how visually accessible MLB’s implementation of ARKit is. Baseball is my favorite sport, and this is one use case for augmented reality that has strong appeal to me.

A Few Favorite watchOS 4 Features

Apple last Tuesday released watchOS 4 to the public. Unlike iOS, I typically don’t put watchOS betas on my Apple Watch during the summer beta period. Thus, watchOS 4’s final release meant I got to see the new update alongside everyone else. And, frankly, I was excited—although I ran iOS 11 on my iOS devices since early July, it was neat to see watchOS 4 with fresh eyes. There were no pre-conceived notions; it was a true surprise.

After a few days with it, I am pleased to report the new software is quite good. watchOS 4 runs well on my “Series 0” (first-generation) Apple Watch, even though I’m slightly disappointed the device’s pokey S1 system-on-a-chip means the heart rate sensor’s new features are disabled on this model.

Nonetheless, watchOS 4 is pretty great. Here are some highlights for me.

The redesigned passcode entry screen. This is a radical change from watchOS 3 and before. Whereas previously the keypad and other buttons were small and low contrast, the new version features bigger buttons that are high contrast and colorful. There’s a cool animation when you tap a number that’s reminiscent of the keyboard animation on the iPhone. The OK and Delete buttons are green and red, respectively. Together, entering my passcode to unlock my watch is more accessible than ever. It’s a small detail, to be sure, but it makes a big difference in the overall Apple Watch experience for me.

Persistent media controls for music and podcasts. Whenever I’m listening to a podcast or music, raising my wrist now brings up the Now Playing screen so I can easily play/pause audio. This is a really handy addition, as I don’t need to pull out my phone to control what is currently playing. (I can double-tap on my AirPods to control audio as well.) This feature is one of those little touches Apple has long been known for; it reduces friction and enriches the experience. It’s just nice. As an Apple Music subscriber and unabashed AirPods lover, I am very excited for Apple Music streaming to come next month.

The Siri watch face. The Siri face is my new favorite. The information density is good, but what I like most about it is the face’s legibility. The date & time and info cards are set in a thicker variant of San Francisco that, to my eyes, is high contrast and easily readable. Glancing at a headline in Apple News or even the current time is easy with this font, which is a boon on a display as small as the Apple Watch’s. I’m a big fan.

Enhanced Activity reminders. I enjoy being notified throughout the day about my stats in the Activity app. It’s great how the app will ping you every so often to encourage you to meet one (or more) of your daily goals. These reminders also pop up on the Siri face occasionally as well, which is also helpful. My favorite part of these new reminders is how they now tell you what you did the day before, so you can see how you did. More than ever, the Activity app in watchOS 4 feels as though you have your own personal trainer with you on your wrist every day.

PodPocket

PodPocket is my new favorite accessory; I first heard about it from Matt Gemmell on Twitter. It's a little case for your AirPods with a hook that you can use to clip on your key ring, belt loop, or whatever. The top and bottom of the AirPods case is exposed so you can open and close and charge, respectively. It's a really nice way to carry your AirPods while keeping the case pretty clean and scratch-free.