Category Archives: Accessibility

Why Can’t I Change Gamepad Controls?

A disturbing trend among some video games is gamepad support whose controls cannot be customized. While the standardization of gamepad support on PC’s has increased the number of games supporting them, for some games there is only a single configuration. For those of us who are differently abled, or simply prefer to use a familiar layout, control customization seems to be taking a step backwards.

This is surprising since personalizing controls has long been a feature of PC gaming for decades, even among small budget titles. Consoles such as the PS4 and Xbox One now offer the ability to remap keys for all games. This is a modest accessibility improvement, though it appears to come at the cost of less in-game remapping. So players who prefer to alternate between different games the situation often involves re-configuring one’s brain each time. One would hope the competition among PCs and various console platforms would drive progress towards more accessible controls.

It’s true that enterprising users and 3rd-party developers provide alternative means of remapping controls. Sadly, many of these fail to remap for multiple games at once. Steam is the most accessible and broadly available which does do per-game mapping. Still, being outside the game requires users know their games default controls and do the old-to-new mapping using only the abstract button names. It’s also a relatively unknown feature.

Despite the variety of games and genres there is a lot of similarity in game control: move forward-back-left-right, jump, crouch, action/shoot, sprint, etc. On PC the keyboard controls have defaulted to the WADS keys for forward-left-right-back, so why not have a means to change the defaults for all games at once? Certainly some games will have unique controls which cannot be standardized. In those cases in-game customization may be the best solution. Still, it would save gamers time and frustration if they could begin with familiar fundamentals when starting or switching among experiences.

If PCs and consoles increasingly become home-theater machines and gamers play a larger variety of games they too may be asking why controls are so difficult to personalize. Hopefully developers will take notice.

VeraCrypt Is Too Slow And Complex

Now that more Truecrypt weaknesses have been revealed the open-source solution taking its place appears to be VeraCrypt. Yet its extra-secure encryption of the system partition adds so many rounds booting is slowed and the extra PIM concept mandates an extra step to every startup. This situation makes it even less suited to non-technical users than TrueCrypt before it.

Steve Gibson may be ready to recommend VeraCrypt, but I don’t think it’s ready for the masses; up to version 1.15 anyway. After clocking my boot time with system encryption it took an extra 85 seconds. Talking non-technical friends and family through even basic use of TrueCrypt volumes was challenging enough. VeraCrypt’s additional Personal Iteration Multiplier certainly adds more security. Still, the extra step and forgettable-yet-necessary element is only making it less novice friendly.

Another long term problem is VeraCrypt’s lack of Secure Boot support. This prevents booting with whole-disk encryption on machines locked down within UEFI’s boot-loader signing. Hopefully VeraCryp support will be done before Secure Boot becomes widespread.

Now having tried the built-in encryption features of Windows, OS X, and Ubuntu Linux the VeraCrypt software does still offer a nice cross-platform solution. The VeraCrypt UI is also easier than Linux, though it has a way to go before being as easy as Windows and OS X. With a little UX love and simpler defaults VeraCrypt has the potential to offer a compelling alternative for regular folks.

Ad Blocking Robs Everyone

Internet services and web content take time and energy to develop and maintain. Since the Web opened to commercial business and broader public adoption in the 1990’s it has been increasingly funded by advertising. Yet tools which block ads, like Ad Block Plus, undermine this support. Without compensation for their work the people who produce websites and services will have to find another way to get paid or stop producing.

Of course nothing in life is completely free, but the increasingly easy access to the Net make it seem that way. While we consumers pay for access to the network, it’s often advertisers who pay for the content we enjoy. This makes a large volume of work available that might not be accessible. Before commercialization web access was typically only available at large institutions like universities, governments, and large companies. So naturally content was tailored for this audience; research, educational resources, and business records.

As more consumer content (like games, music, and news) came on-line it became more worthwhile for the general public to get involved. But without ads growth was slow. Since then on-line advertising and network technology matured some advertising is yielding to direct purchasing and patronage. It’s happening with movies on Netflix, music on Spotify, and publication with Patreon and Google Contributor. Though, given how modest direct contributions are compared to market of paid and free-with-ads-or-in-app-purchasing it appears most consumers opt for ads over paid subscriptions. In other words, we’re more willing to give up time than cash.

Ads also lower the barrier to entry which makes the web more accessible to those who are unable to contribute directly to producers; whether because of the cost, technological, or regional barriers.

Certain ad blockers and blocker producers claim that they’re only avoiding annoying ads. Yet they still consume the content regardless. So it’s like saying “I only steal from stores when the payment is distasteful”.

AdBlock Plus looks especially hypocritical as they extort payment from advertisers to avoid blocking. Perhaps they’ll also unblock their own advertising

Now I’m no saint either. Before fully understanding the consequences, I used such blockers as a way to avoid annoyances on the web. In fact the act of writing this article has made me rethink my use of RequestPolicy and similar tools to avoid loading unnecessary assets. One could take this view to the extreme and say that disabling plugins like Flash is theft since ads may depend upon it. Accessibility tools likewise may restrict how the web is presented. However, in such cases the intent is significantly different and advertisers often have a way to fall back to self-hosted ads, ads without plugins, or without images. Even so I’ve decided that my blocking of all 3rd-party resources is going too far.

We as consumers can chose to avoid advertising on the Internet, but the only ethical solution is to pay producers ourselves or do without their services. Anything else is theft. Otherwise the decreasing effectiveness of ads will probably lead to less content for all of us.

Dear Designers, Your Background Images Are Inaccessible

Many sites today make themselves inaccessible to low-vision users as they rely upon background images for core functionality. Users who prefer to browse without unnecessary imagery are also left out in the cold unless their willing to abandon high contrast or other accessible modes of browsing. Sadly this impacts not just small shops but even the web giants like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Yahoo.

Website design is an art with ever evolving tools, so it’s understandable that designers want to stay cutting edge. Yet doing so often leaves marginalized communities, such as those physically challenged, in the dust. While I can see just fine, I prefer to browse with high-contrast themes and modes to avoid wasted energy and eye strain. Unfortunately something as simple as searching or checking web-mail often involves reverting to bleached-white screens.

The problem most often manifests as links or buttons depend upon background images or foreground images that lack any alternative text.

outlook-com-login-high-contrast-view

google-com-search-high-contrast-view

google-com-login-high-contrast-view

gog-com-login-high-contrast-view

gmail-com-inbox

duckduckgo-com-search-high-contrast-view

Please designers, make your sites accessible without background images.

Moving To Windows For Speech Recognition

Practical speech recognition options for non-Windows operating systems are few. Yet after years of overuse my hands needed a break from the keyboard and mouse. After a few months with SphinxKeys on Linux, some experiments with Simon Listens, and reading about the limitations of Dragon Dictate for Mac the only viable option was to return to Microsoft’s OS.

As a child in the early 1990’s I grew accustomed to Microsoft‘s DOS and consumer editions of Windows. College and a job at a very Apple-friendly company led to spending a lot more time with Linux, enterprise Windows, and OS X. As newer versions offered speech recognition and text-to-speech I toyed with these features like everything else. Sadly those brief trials left me with the impression that they were not ready for everyday use. Years later, typing and mousing around had caught up with me. In late 2013 there was no denying it was time to revisit speech recognition, and much more seriously.

By this point I was years into Linux and loving it: powerful shells, federated package management, light resource usage, lots of software choices … besides voice input. While Linux has several speech tools they all seemed impractical:

  • IBM’s ViaVoice was sold and died out
  • Palaver sends voice data through Google, incompatible with my job requirements
  • Platypus didn’t work with my version of Dragon
  • Simon Listens was cumbersome and never worked for me
  • SphinxKeys only simulated keystroke input
  • Vedics didn’t compile and seems out-of-date

There are more options on Linux. Though, after trying so many I had already found more success with Windows.

Around this time an old copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking (circa 2007) turned up at a local thrift shop. Spending some time with it revealed how useful the different modes were, showed the promise of the software development kit, and piqued my curiosity into the tools others had built on it. Sadly it didn’t support 64-bit and integration into existing software was very limited. Apart from Microsoft Office it didn’t have a lot to offer out of the box. Reviews of later versions seemed to reaffirm that the software wasn’t going to work for my needs.

Microsoft began offering Windows Speech Recognition with Windows Vista. And after using it for a few months on Windows 7 I can say it does a passable job with a good, properly configured microphone. Integration with built software like Internet Explorer and Windows Live Mail is solid. Other applications like Miranda IM work reasonably well too. Too bad most fall back to the annoying, if usable, dictation pad. Patience and persist help in the hunt for the most practical solutions.

WSR can be resource intensive. My computer’s memory usage climbs a bit. Things also get slower as I keep many programs open. Using a lot of tabs in IE or Firefox caused the most slowdown; making scrolling a chore. Underpowered computers like netbooks, Celeron-equipped laptops, or older desktops only served to disappointed. Your mileage may vary.

While WSR works alright as is it really needs customization options to fit a wider variety of workflows. There are a few tools out there:

The first two also offer versions that work with Nuance’s Dragon products which helps avoid lock in. At this point I’ve settled for WSR Macros with some AutoIt tweaks to get voice clicking without the mouse grid and other things.

Today my voice does about 15% of the work. It helps most with e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, clicking, and window management. After seeing Tavis Rudd‘s presentation on programming by voice I hope to achieve a similar proficiency. Until then the experiments will continue as time permits.

Have you ever tried speech recognition? What did you think? If you’d like to share please comment.