This is a post about a few more features in Android JellyBean that might be of interest to the accessibility community. If you haven’t done so already, you may want to read my earlier blog post Random thoughts on Android Jellybean and Google Nexus 7 Accessibility. I received a lot of very good feedback on that blog post. Thank you very much for your comments and recommendations.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that an ebook of Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer was included for free on my Nexus 7 device. Or at least I think it is free! I don’t remember intentionally purchasing it but it is perhaps best to check my credit card statement anyway. Nevertheless, this ebook is on my device and I wanted to read it because Jeffrey Archer is one of my favourite authors and although I have an unabridged audio version of this book, I haven’t started reading it yet.
Ebooks purchased from Google are available in an app called “Play Books”. I suspect the name “Play Books” comes from “Play Store” which is Android’s online store for apps, music, ebooks and other media content. “Play Books” sounds like a weird name for an ebook application though.
There is a dock with a number of app icons located at the bottom of the home screen. This dock is available on all pages of the home screen. Play Books is one of the apps that can be launched from the dock.
When the Play Books app is launched, the first screen contains the list of ebooks that have been purchased on the Play Books store. I believe Google also distributes books that are out of copyright and these are free to download. Any such free downloads should also appear in this list.
When the Play Books app is launched for the first time, it may take a few seconds for the list of available books to be populated. I suspect that the device will acquire the list from the Play Books online store. Further, an internet connection is required to open and read these ebooks. But there is an option to download them to the device as well.
I have had mixed results navigating through the list of books on this screen. Sometimes, the book titles are read out when using the left and right swipe gestures. But more often, I have to explore the screen to get to them.
Assuming that Talkback is running and explore by touch is active, double tapping a book in the list will open it. More importantly, Talkback will start reading the book aloud. Do remember that the book has to be downloaded from Google if opening it for the first time. So it may be a few seconds before Talkback starts to read the book. I do have to say though that the default TTS engine in JellyBean isn’t really suited for reading books. Especially not fiction. I may have to invest in a better sounding TTS engine.
If you let it, Talkback will continue to read to the end of the book. As mentioned in my previous blog post, there is no command or gesture to stop/pause and resume speech in Talkback. But I may have luckily discovered a workaround for this. When you want to pause speech, tap and hold with a single finger anywhere on the screen. Talkback will pause reading the book as long as your finger is touching the screen. To resume reading, just lift your finger. Very handy for answering a quick phone call for instance.
The only other way to pause or stop reading the book is going back to the previous screen which is the list of books or going out of the Play Books app completely. Unfortunately, when Talkback is reading the book, it is almost impossible to get to the “Back”, “Home” and “Recent Apps” soft buttons at the bottom of the screen. When I touch these buttons, I can hear the earcon indicating that I am on one of these buttons but Talkback continues to read the book. It may read the name of the soft button that I touched much later when it has completed reading a chunk of text from the book but I may have moved away from that button by then. Fortunately, Talkback has a set of four shortcut gestures that come in handy here. The Home button can be activated by swiping up and left and for the Back button, it is swipe down and left. These shortcut gesture assignments can be altered from Apps > Settings > Talkback > Settings > Shortcut Gestures.
Moving to the next and previous page are the only navigation capabilities available within a book when using Talkback. Two finger swipe up moves to the next page and two finger swipe down moves to the previous page. Talk back will resume reading from the next or previous page. Using the right swipe gesture to read the next chunk of text doesn’t work reliably. The gesture works for the first couple of attempts with some books while with others, it doesn’t work at all. Changing the reading level to character, word or paragraph doesn’t seem to have any effect.
The books I tried to read do appear to have table of contents. Although I haven’t verified this with a sighted user, I am fairly certain that it is possible to jump to a particular chapter from the table of contents. This is however not possible with Talkback. Of course, when Talkback starts reading from the beginning of the page, it dutifully reads through the table of contents. Listening to something like “Chapter 1 chapter 2 Chapter 3” until chapter 70 or so can get annoying rather quickly. So I try to use the move to next page gesture a number of times in an attempt to find the beginning of the text with mixed results.
If for some reason, you didn’t want Talkback to automatically start reading books, you can turn this off in Play Books settings. In the application’s main screen, find the “More Options” button. Activating this button opens up a menu. Activate “Settings” from this menu. Look for the “Automatically read outloud” checkbox and uncheck it. If you are a Talkback user, you will need a really compelling reason to disable this option. I haven’t found an alternative way to read any book with this option disabled.
For partially sighted users, there are options to change the font type and increase or decrease the font size. There appear to be six different fonts. However, I cannot really test if the different font size options are suitable for users with low vision. These display options are available through a popup menu that can be opened by swiping up from the Home button. Doing this with Talkback isn’t an easy task though. Finally, according to help documentation for Google Play Books, some ebooks may only be offered with original scanned pages. This means that these ebooks won’t have text reflow capabilities. However, users will apparently be notified of this when purchasing or downloading the ebook. I haven’t come across such an ebook on Google as yet but I am not sure if Talkback will be able to read the book outloud if it only contains scanned pages.
I do have to admit that for fiction at least, I prefer to listen to human narrated version of a book rather than listening to a text to speech engine. However, I am still persisting with the ebook version of “Only Time Will Tell”.
The most important thing however is the fact that visually impaired people now have a much greater choice of reading material that is partly or fully accessible. In addition to Google Books on Android, iBooks on iOS and Blio on both platforms, Adobe Digital Editions on PC and Mac is now screen reader accessible as well.
More Gestures for Google Books
After I published this blog post, I was informed about a few gestures and commands for reading books in Play Books app. These don’t appear to be documented online. So most of what is written below is from my experience of using the gestures and commands.
When a book is opened and Talkback is reading it, double tapping with a single finger pauses speech. Double tap with a single finger again to resume speech. Talkback will start reading the book from the location it was paused. I haven’t discovered this in my initial testing because everywhere else in the Android platform, a single finger double tap activates things. As such I didn’t expect it to be performing such a conceptually different function of pausing and resuming speech. No matter how hard I try to think logically, a single finger double tap activating items throughout the platform but doing entirely a different thing in a single application is hard to comprehend.
It is also possible to jump to next page and previous page by touching and then double tapping the right corner and left corner of the screen respectively. For example, to go to the next page, you would first touch the screen towards the right side corner. Nothing happens at this stage. But double tapping the screen now will take you to the next page and Talkback will continue reading from the next page.
Earlier, I did say that a single finger double tap will pause and resume speech. This would obviously lead to readers concluding that after moving to the next or previous page, they can use double tap to pause speech. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be true. Single finger double tap is now set to moving to the next or previous page (depending on which function was selected) and subsequent single finger double taps will continue doing this new function. In order to make single finger double tap pause and resume speech, the users will have to touch the middle of the screen and then double tap. This will return the single finger double tap gesture to its former state which is to pause or resume reading.
Perhaps this can be explained in a slightly simpler way. Imagine that when a book is opened, there are three huge buttons on the screen from left to right in a row. The left most button towards the left edge of the screen is the “Previous Page” button. The middle button is the “Pause/Resume Reading” button. And the right most button towards the right edge of the screen is the “Next Page” button. To activate these buttons, you would first select one of them by touching it and then double tapping it. Once you activate a button, subsequent single finger double taps will continue to activate that button. In order to activate a different button, you have to touch it first.
It would have been very helpful if all of this was clearly documented in an appropriate location. Nexus 7 manual’s Accessibility section would have been a good place to mention it. Most users, especially if they are new to the platform, would have a very hard time figuring out something like this on their own.
Music and Movies
There is not much to talk about these applications. The music playback application is called “Google Music” which is probably a more obvious title than “Play Books”. Again, “Play Music” can be launched from the dock on the home screen. Unfortunately, Google’s online music store and music in the cloud services are not available in the UK and so I wasn’t able to test them. However, I did manage to copy a number of music tracks on to the Nexus 7 device. Play Music app recognised them immediately and I was able to play them with not much trouble. The playback controls are located at the bottom of the screen just above the “Back”, “Home” and “Recent apps” soft buttons. Playback controls are also available on the lock screen and they are usable with Talkback. I haven’t figured out a way to rewind and fast forward inside a track.
The app for movie play back is a different storey altogether. Not surprisingly, the app is called “Play Movies” and is also available on the dock. Using Talkback, I can start playback of a movie. But I haven’t found a way to pause playback. I needed sighted help to accomplish this. None of the shortcut gestures work when the movie is playing. Double tapping the screen brings up an unlabelled image control. I tried double tapping this to bring up playback controls with no success. Perhaps there is a way to pause or stop playback when using Talkback. However, I am not too interested in watching movies and so I didn’t spend too much time on finding a solution.
Movies can be purchased on the Google Play online movie store. I was happy to note that the movies I purchased did contain closed captions. It is also possible to select the font size for caption display from “small, medium, large and huge. There is no audio description for these movies though.
Finally, I noticed a number of unlabelled image controls in both Play Music and Play Movies apps all over the place. However, I am not sure what these controls do.
The YouTube app is available in the “Apps” folder. It is mostly usable with Talkback except for a couple of challenges. Once you start playback of a YouTube video, in order to pause playback, a Talkback user needs to double tap the video to bring up playback controls. I have found a reliable way that works for me. When the video is playing, find a control named “Info”. From this control, swipe left once. There won’t be any speech feedback but you are in the right spot to bring up playback controls. I presume the focus is on the video. Double tap the screen now. Playback controls are visible but focus doesn’t move to the controls. Swipe right once to move to “Pause Video” button. This is a bit unwieldy but does work for me more often than not. I did try remembering the video playback area, double tapping it and then remembering the location of the “pause video” button. But I admit that I haven’t been successful.
I suspect the YouTube interface on a 7 inch tablet can be a little crowded. It is perhaps easier to access the controls on a smaller screen. It would also be interesting to see how accessible the new standalone YouTube app for iOS will be. If it is going to use the same UI design as the Android tablet app, it may not be a pleasant experience for blind users.
As always, any comments, suggestions, tips and app recommendations are very welcome. Please leave a comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter @kirankaja12.