What's Your Type? A Key to Input Methods for VoiceOver Users



By: Chancey Fleet

When Voiceover made its mobile debut in June 2009, there was exactly one way to type: you used the integrated “virtual keyboard." Sighted users did it by hunting and pecking. Voiceover users did it by locating a letter and then typing that letter with a “double tap” (two quick presses with one finger) or a “split tap” (one finger drops anchor at the letter’s location while a second finger taps, once, anywhere on the screen). While this method worked as advertised, a short email composed this way could leave the average user tapped out, so to speak, and ready for a traditional keyboard and perhaps a traditional siesta. Thankfully, iOS (the operating system shared by the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad) has matured to include some significant keyboarding improvements for Voiceover users; and third-party application developers are entering the mobile composition space with some pathbreaking alternatives. Here’s a rundown of three ways to compose text using the touchscreen of your iOS device. (Note: I’m a fan of dictation, Braille displays and Bluetooth keyboards. Such a big fan that I think they deserve to be covered separately).

Virtual Keyboard

The much-maligned onscreen keyboard has actually grown up to be sort of decent. A “touch typing” mode is now available in iOS’s Voiceover settings which allows you  to locate the character you want to type with a single finger. When Voiceover speaks that character, simply lift your finger and that character is typed. Another new setting, “Typing Echo," lets you specify whether Voiceover should echo every letter or word as you type. Voiceover also speaks auto-corrections so that you will always know when iOS corrects your  spelling.

The pitch: Never carry an extra device with you and don’t waste time learning an additional app. Wherever you are in iOS, you already have the virtual keyboard. iOS’s built-in keyboard also comes with the advantage of “Shortcuts” – snippets of text you’d rather not type over and over again, associated with quick character combinations you don’t mind typing, stored in your Keyboard settings. For example, “CFg” is the shortcut I use to write my entire, much longer email address. To date, shortcuts that you assign in iOS do not work with third-party virtual keyboards.

The hitch: Using the iOS virtual keyboard demands precision and, even in touch typing mode, requires three steps to enter a letter: find it, hear it, type it. Experienced users can achieve respectable rates of speed with the onscreen keyboard, but those three steps do limit your top speed.

The assist: SpeedDots are affordable, clear screen protectors with tactile markings for letters on the virtual keyboard as well as critical controls throughout IOS.

BrailleTouch

After almost one full year of energetic news coverage about the app, BrailleTouch made its App Store debut this January. BrailleTouch is free to try - $19.99 if you’d like to copy, email, Tweet, Facebook or message the text you’ve brailled. To use this app, you must hold the phone facing away from you in landscape orientation and tap any finger once on the screen to initiate typing. Then, drop the same fingers you’d use on a Perkins Brailler to start Brailling. Flick a finger from left to right for space; flick two fingers from left to right for enter; and flick two fingers from right to left to expose a menu that includes Help, Clear and several ways to send your text somewhere useful. 

The pitch: Six-fingering Braille onto a touchscreen feels delightfully retro. Educators and students of Braille will find a lot to love in this pocket-sized practice method, particularly since it provides reinforcement by announcing every letter or symbol you Braille, even in the free version.

The hitch: BrailleTouch only supports Grade 1 Braille for now. While the six dot targets are spread out along the left and right sides of an iPhone held in landscape orientation, making the dot positions easy to hit after just a little practice, BrailleTouch essentially lives on a tiny island at the center of an iPad. (This is called 2X mode and is how all iPhone apps that have not been optimized for iPad show up). Unless you have preternaturally good aim, what you’re likely to experience with this app on the iPad is nothing short of a FailTouch.

The assist: While the developers report that a majority of users prefer to Braille with the same fingers they’d use on a Perkins, some people may prefer to Braille by pressing their fingers directly onto the spots where dots would go, spatially, in a vertical cell. If you’d rather Braille this way, visit the BrailleTouch Settings where you can “flip” the locations of dots 1, 3, 4 and 6; and where you’ll also find a high-contrast color scheme for low-vision users.

Fleksy – Happy Typing

This is essentially a QWERTY keyboard with the letters and symbols removed. You enter text by pressing, by dead reckoning, where you think the letter you want is. At the end of each word, you swipe a finger from left to right. Hopefully, Fleksy’s predictive engine has guessed what you meant and rendered your taps into the English or Spanish word you wanted. If not, swipe down with one finger to move through a list of suggestions (Fleksy may have recognized “from”, for example, when you actually meant “drum”, “drug” or “iron”). Fleksy also allows you to touch the characters you need more precisely – just as you would with IOS’s built-in virtual keyboard - if the word you need is not in Fleksy’s dictionary (that’s “Conchita”, not “gunshot”, thanks). Swiping a finger from left to right to complete a word, then swiping up, delivers the characters you actually typed. Additional gestures are available for inserting punctuation, numbers and symbols. Touching the top half of the screen at any time invokes a menu that includes instructions and (in the $4.99 paid version) options for copying your text to the clipboard and clearing the screen or sending it out to a tweet, mail, message or Facebook post.

The pitch: Fleksy is almost unnervingly accurate and, as long as what you’re typing is mostly comprised of standard English or Spanish words, it’s perhaps the speediest option of the bunch. The $4.99 price tag is relatively easy on the wallet. The iPad version makes use of the extra room by providing full portrait and landscape keyboards.

The hitch: Fleksy corrects inaccurate typing. It does absolutely nothing for poor spelling – in fact, typing one letter too many or few (“wenever” instead of “whenever”, for example) defeats Fleksy’s predictive powers entirely. The only suggestions you’ll get with Fleksy have the same number of letters that you actually typed. 

The assist: Fleksy boasts an excellent set of instructions, accessible by touching and holding the top half of the screen while the app is running. These can be navigated by heading using the rotor and they are highly recommended reading before you get started.


So, which onscreen keyboard is right for you? Veteran braillists - and those of us looking to sharpen our Braille skills - can finally compose braille on our iOS devices without the addition of costly hardware. Meanwhile, a growing legion of Fleksy "happy typists" is ditching the "hunt and peck" method in favor of "hit and predict." Particularly on the iPad, with its full-sized QWERTY layout in landscape mode, Fleksy might just be the fastest way to type on glass. For those of us who communicate in a language other than English or Spanish, iOS's built-in virtual keyboard is the clear leader, providing custom keyboards for the over 30 languages supported by iOS itself. The built-in keyboard is also the logical choice for those of us who rely heavily on auto-correct and shortcut features. Since both Fleksy and BrailleTouch come in free versions that let you try out their keyboarding mechanics before you buy, the real key is to sit down and take each of them for a test-drive.

--Chancey Fleet is an adaptive technology specialist at Jewish Guild Healthcare and is working toward an MA in Disability Studies at the City University of New York's School of Professional Studies.

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