As a programmer, it always amazes me when a simple feature makes a profound difference. Any programmer will know what I mean. In this case, I refer to VoiceOver’s ability to speak emoticons.
Emoticons refer to little faces made out of punctuation and other characters, usually resulting in a simile of a sideways image. They make absolutely no sense to the blind, at least those blind since birth, not knowing what the punctuation characters look like. In fact, most screen readers simply filter them out as extraneous noise, resulting in nothing, or at the least any letters, for instance reading “:)” as nothing, “:-)” sometimes as “dash”, and o)” as “o.” A VoiceOver user will have heard “Smiley” for the first two.
Most screen readers have a word exceptions dictionary. This lets the user modify the pronunciation of individual words. Screen readers also usually ship with a default set of pronunciations. For example, “Qty” becomes “Quantity.”” The brilliant geniuses who program VoiceOver simply added the following definitions to the default word exceptions dictionary. The iPhone even has these built in, though the user cannot edit the dictionary.
Anyone can probably do something similar in their screen reader of choice, assuming it will let you substitute strings of punctuation. This shows how a very simple addition makes a profound difference in the user experience, and most blind people don’t even realize the amount of emoticons which surround them. 🙂
For a long time I scoffed at emoticons and those who use them. Keep in mind that most screen readers do not even report them. 🙁 Suddenly hearing the smileys and frowns interspersed with text felt like seeing color in a way, adding a new sparkly dimension which had always existed but which I could not perceive up until this point. I could not believe how this made a difference, since I had never given emoticons much thought, preferring to express myself in language.
I have a friend on Twitter who uses a lot of emoticons. She and I met in part because we both enjoy the humor of the Firesign Theatre. They tend to have very dry intellectual humor, delivering incredibly intelligent jokes with double and triple meanings with a complete straight face. I wouldn’t know the appropriate emoticon. This means we both tend to have a rather sarcastic brand of humor, and unfortunately sometimes that sarcasm can become lost in an emotionless unidimensional text stream. For her and others, emoticons help make their sarcasm clear. At last I understood. We’re all bozos on this bus! 🙂
Once again, at least to my knowledge, Apple has paved the way with something brilliant. I remain open to correction on this point, if other screen readers have adopted this feature please let me know. If not, I imagine things going down something like this. The free screen readers like NVDA and Thunder will quietly adopt it in their own time, as will GW Micro and System Access, if they haven’t already. Freedom Scientific, on the other hand, will adopt it amidst much fanfare, increment JAWS’s major version number, and charge $400 for an upgrade. I can see the press release now.
Freedom Scientific introduces new JAWS 15.0, now with revolutionary new support for speaking emoticons. For the first time, the leader in access technology brings to the blind the experience of hearing emoticons. Feel the freedom of seeing the faces around you.
I almost regret typing up such a perfect press release for the competition, especially because it contains a flagrant falsehood. If Freedom Scientific really wants to use it, I therefore request that they send me a check in the amount of the purchase price of a Macbook Pro, plus a few hundred extra for the inevitable accessories. That will do nicely. If you can’t pay all at once, then how about $500 down and a 36-month contract? 😉