VoiceOver is a highly sophisticated screen reader produced by Apple. It comes as a standard feature when you purchase the Mac OS X operating system (version 10.4 onwards) which runs on Apple Mac computers and laptops. Although it is not free in the traditional sense, it is the only screen reader that comes as a integrated feature of any operating system and is highly advanced.
A variant of VoiceOver is included on the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch to make these multi-touch devices accessible to people who are blind or vision impaired. A cut-down version is also used on iPod shuffle and iPod nano.
In addition to the standard features you would expect to see in a screen reader are some stand-out features such as gesture support, Braille display support and advanced Internet browsing.
VoiceOver enables you to control your computer using simple gestures like taps and flicks on the Multi-Touch Trackpad, named for its ability to recognise multiple touches together. For example, flicking right or left will move the VoiceOver cursor to the next or previous item of the screen. This is akin to tabbing from one item to the next using the keyboard. You can also assign specific actions to a list of predefined gestures.
When you use the Multi-Touch Trackpad, the location of your finger on the touchpad corresponds to the location of your VoiceOver cursor on the screen. As you move around the screen with the touchpad, whatever is underneath your VoiceOver cursor (and underneath your ‘finger’) will be announced by VoiceOver. This can give you a spatial awareness of the layout of the information on the screen.
Apple also uses the trackpad to simulate a ‘rotor’ that mimics a real rotor dial. To use the rotor function, you simply place two fingers of the trackpad and turn your fingers as if you were turning a real rotor dial. The rotor is used to change VoiceOver settings and access commands, and well as for functions such as navigating to important parts of a webpage.
Braille display support
VoiceOver provides support for 40+ of the most popular Braille displays. The onscreen Braille panel displays both Braille and a plain text translation of what is being said by VoiceOver which can be very useful when sighted users are working with people with a vision impairment. The Braille panel can be used whether the Braille device is plugged in or not.
Advanced Internet browsing
In addition to general Internet browsing capabilities, VoiceOver can provide you with an overview of a web page’s content and makes use of the Rotor to enable easy navigation of a webpage using common HTML tags like header, link, visited link, nonvisited link, form element, table, frame, and image.
Apple recognises that not all websites are accessible and attempts to combat this problem using new technologies that use the visual relationship of a webpage to understand and interpret the content on the web page. VoiceOver then uses this information to assign tags, called web spots, which mark important locations on a web page. You can then use these web spots to navigate around a website. You can also use web spots to mark and then easily access a favourite part of a web site. Apple calls this a sweet spot.
Apple allows you to export your VoiceOver preferences from your Mac computer or laptop onto a USB memory stick. If you were to plug that USB memory stick into another Mac computer or laptop with Mac OS X, it will recognise your preference and act accordingly. As all Mac computers and laptops have VoiceOver as a standard feature, VoiceOver itself is not able to be run off a USB memory stick.
There are many other features of VoiceOver not discussed here. We encourage you to visit the official Apple VoiceOver website for more in-depth information about VoiceOver as well as a list of Braille displays and applications that are supported by VoiceOver. Apple has also put together a comprehensive 17 minute video introducing VoiceOver with a live demonstration of its features.
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