Apple brings eye-tracking to recent iPhones and iPads


Ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day this week, Apple is issuing its typical annual set of announcements around its assistive features. Many of these are useful for people with disabilities, but also have broader applications as well. For instance, Personal Voice, which was released last year, helps preserve someone’s speaking voice. It can be helpful to those who are at risk of losing their voice or have other reasons for wanting to retain their own vocal signature for loved ones in their absence. Today, Apple is bringing eye-tracking support to recent models of iPhones and iPads, as well as customizable vocal shortcuts, music haptics, vehicle motion cues and more.

The most intriguing feature of the set is the ability to use the front-facing camera on iPhones or iPads (at least those with the A12 chip or later) to navigate the software without additional hardware or accessories. With this enabled, people can look at their screen to move through elements like apps and menus, then linger on an item to select it.

That pause to select is something Apple calls Dwell Control, which has already been available elsewhere in the company’s ecosystem like in Mac’s accessibility settings. The setup and calibration process should only take a few seconds, and on-device AI is at work to understand your gaze. It’ll also work with third-party apps from launch, since it’s a layer in the OS like Assistive Touch. Since Apple already supported eye-tracking in iOS and iPadOS with eye-detection devices connected, the news today is the ability to do so without extra hardware.

Apple is also working on improving the accessibility of its voice-based controls on iPhones and iPads. It again uses on-device AI to create personalized models for each person setting up a new vocal shortcut. You can set up a command for a single word or phrase, or even an utterance (like “Oy!” perhaps). Siri will understand these and perform your designated shortcut or task. You can have these launch apps or run a series of actions that you define in the Shortcuts app, and once set up, you won’t have to first ask Siri to be ready.

Another improvement coming to vocal interactions is “Listen for Atypical Speech,” which has iPhones and iPads use on-device machine learning to recognize speech patterns and customize their voice recognition around your unique way of vocalizing. This sounds similar to Google’s Project Relate, which is also designed to help technology better understand those with speech impairments or atypical speech.

To build these tools, Apple worked with the Speech Accessibility Project at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The institute is also collaborating with other tech giants like Google and Amazon to further development in this space across their products.

For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, Apple is bringing haptics to music players on iPhone, starting with millions of songs on its own Music app. When enabled, music haptics will play taps, textures and specialized vibrations in tandem with the audio to bring a new layer of sensation. It’ll be available as an API so developers can bring greater accessibility to their apps, too.

Drivers with disabilities need better systems in their cars, and Apple is addressing some of the issues with its updates to CarPlay. Voice control and color filters are coming to the interface for vehicles, making it easier to control apps by talking and for those with visual impairments to see menus or alerts. To that end, CarPlay is also getting bold and large text support, as well as sound recognition for noises like sirens or honks. When the system identifies such a sound, it will display an alert at the bottom of the screen to let you know what it heard. This works similarly to Apple’s existing sound recognition feature in other devices like the iPhone.

Apple

For those who get motion sickness while using their iPhones or iPads in moving vehicles, a new feature called Vehicle Motion Cues might alleviate some of that discomfort. Since motion sickness is based on a sensory conflict from looking at stationary content while being in a moving vehicle, the new feature is meant to better align the conflicting senses through onscreen dots. When enabled, these dots will line the four edges of your screen and sway in response to the motion it detects. If the car moves forward or accelerates, the dots will sway backwards as if in reaction to the increase in speed in that direction.

There are plenty more features coming to the company’s suite of products, including Live Captions in VisionOS, a new Reader mode in Magnifier, support for multi-line braille and a virtual trackpad for those who use Assistive Touch. It’s not yet clear when all of these announced updates will roll out, though Apple has historically made these features available in upcoming versions of iOS. With its developer conference WWDC just a few weeks away, it’s likely many of today’s tools get officially released with the next iOS.

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