Siri vs Voice Assistant: An accessibility view


AbilityNet Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson spoke at Future of Web Apps in London on 16 October 2012 - here's a quick preview of one part of his talk.

UPDATE: You can read Robin's speaker notes from FOWA London 2012 on this site


Future of web apps logoThe battle intensifies …and disabled users win?

For some time now the two leading smartphone operating systems –Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android – have been vying for supremacy in the battle to have the best and quickest virtual assistant to help users with fast and intuitive ways to find out information and perform tasks.

Whilst these in-built artificial intelligence agents are hard at work making life easier for all smartphone users there is one group that is benefitting from the escalating efforts of the tech giants more than any other; the disabled community. But before we go any further with that thought let’s look at how the competitors are shaping up.

Siri vs Voice Assistant head-to-head: the video evidence

Both Apple’s ‘Siri’ and Google’s ‘Voice Assistant’ are able to tell you Winston Churchill’s birthday, what an ounce of Gold or any foreign currency is worth at today’s prices, whether it will rain this afternoon, turn-by-turn directions to your nearest pizza place, and pictures of pigmy marmosets (officially the cutest monkeys in the world). But a painstaking perusal of the many Youtube videos of phone face-offs between iOS6 and Jellybean provides some interesting results.

siri and google voice assistant logos

First is a good head-to-head test of the sort of questions we all use our AIs for every day: Siri vs. Google Voice: 21 Questions For iPhone 5 And Jelly Bean 4.1

From watching this I think you’d agree that there’s nothing between them for accuracy - but Google’s Voice Assistant wins hands-down on speed.

So far so good, but what about if we ask them something a little more challenging?

In another video Jelly Bean Samsung Galaxy S3 (Google Voice) vs (Siri) iPhone 5, we see that Google has some way to go on the tougher questions. I know that there is a vast variety of questions we could ask these assistants, and that the results might come out differently in each case, but I was unable to find a review that came out in Voice Assistant’s favour when their intelligence is pushed to the limit.

So what does voice recognition have to do with accessibility?

This is all very exciting (or at least I think it is). It’s shaving valuable seconds off the tasks we try to cram in to our already overcrowded lives, but what’s it got to do with disability and why is the disabled community the biggest winner in this escalating better artificial assistance arms race?

It’s to do with those valuable seconds that these apps save us.

Robin at Future of Web Design London, 2011For disabled users such as myself (I’m blind) what Siri can do in five seconds might take me five or sometimes ten minutes. In many cases I might not be able to manage to find what I’m looking for at all because the websites I’m using are inaccessible to my screen-reading software. A similarly slow and painful experience is had by many who can’t use a mouse. Try using your site from the keyboard and you’ll soon see what we mean – it’ll either not work at all or it’ll take you whole minutes to get where you want to go.

Everyone’s a winner?

So for the blind, the motor-impaired, those with learning disabilities or dyslexia, anyone who loves the KISS principal (and which of us doesn’t?), and for positively millions of smartphone users out there, this AI arms race has benefits far beyond the modest convenience bonus for by the average use. Even the contenders themselves have no idea how far this thing will go…

Please use the comments to tell me what you think the future will look like.

Follow Robin on Twitter @usa2day

Follow AbilityNet on Twitter @abilitynet

Why are disabled people treated like spammers?


In an article that first appeared in his blog PublicTechnology.net AbilityNet's Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson asks why disabled web users are being treated like spammers.


As we all know, the internet is a far from equitable place as far as accessibility is concerned. Despite general legislation enshrined in the Equality Act and the Disability Equality Duty, specific recommendations in the form of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and an enforcing body – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – cyberspace is still far from being a level playing field for those of us ‘exceptional’ enough to be using adaptive or assistive technology. Ironically, one of the biggest bugbears for accessibility campaigners is a scheme conceived to protect users and websites from the kind of security breaches and identity abuse for which the internet is becoming increasingly infamous.

leeters saying CAPTCHAThe CAPTCHA (or Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) is a code which humans can crack but which, currently, computers cannot.  The distorted image of a character sequence is the most commonly encountered form and usually appears as part of the registration process to enter or use a website or on-line service. If you can’t accurately interpret the code and correctly type it into a text box, you are unable to register - and the vast majority of sites provide no alternative.  Unless you can craletters saying CAPTCHAck the code you are effectively locked out.

Humans vs robots

The critical problem with CAPTCHA is that many humans cannot decipher the code either, and nor can the technologies they commonly use (screen reading software for example).  If you have a vision impairment, dyslexia or learning disability you may be unable to crack the code. The accessibility arm-lock that CAPTCHA represents is an ever-present problem for many millions of users world-wide.

Common CAPTCHA alternatives

The most common alternative is an audio version of the graphical image, providing a second chance at deciphering the code using an audio version that speaks out the characters or sometimes a series of numbers or words instead.  However, the audio distortion needed to obscure the code from malicious programs, can make it almost impossible to hear – even for people with no hearing impairment.  And even if when you manage to hear the content, the short-term memory recall demanded by the exercise may defeat the user anyway.
Other alternatives involve the selection of descriptions of images from drop-down lists and asking the user to decide if a randomly rotated image is upright; but these still require the user to have some useful vision and the ability to deduce the subject of the images.

One route of course is to ‘get round’ the problem altogether with solutions that demand either the cooperation of the website provider or the ability of the end user to enhance the functionality of his/her browser. One approach adopted by Google is to have a hidden link visible only to screen reader users (who are most adversely affected) that leads to a form where they can request to be registered for an account by someone in customer support, but this is slow and resource-intensive.

Community solutions

Empowering ‘community driven’ innovations such as ‘Webvisum’ fulfil a vital need to enhance accessibility, whilst arguably easing pressure on site owners to raise their game.  A browser-based ‘add-on’, available only for Firefox, Webvisum offers dozens of features which make life easier for blind and vision impaired surfers such as high contrast page viewing, link and focus highlighting, and, perhaps most importantly, it provides automated and instant CAPTCHA image solving.

Ask different types of questions

So far, so good, but even WebVisum cannot handle all CAPTCHA images.  The introduction of a series of random logic-based questions (such as the service provided by http://textcaptcha.com) is a far more accessible alternative to the graphical option. For example:

    Which word starts with "k" from the list: demanded, knead, triplet?

    The number of body parts in the list: dress, house, elbow and shirt is?

Although logic-based CAPTCHA offers more independence to those with sight problems, it has been subjected to criticism for demanding greater cognitive ability than the image-based variety.  Whilst not disputing this fact, it is also true to say that users with learning difficulties struggling with these kinds of questions, would be unlikely to be surfing the web without assistance anyway.

Intelligent bots are on their way!

The truth of the matter is that however hard we try to provide inclusive CAPTCHA, the ‘bots’ are always one small step behind and improving all the time – necessitating an arms race that leads to ever more distorted codes to crack. Even those who generate these more accessible options, warn that it is only a matter of time before their security is breached by the evolution of bot intelligence such as natural language interpretation technology.

CAPTCHAs are here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.  The only failsafe solution if you require assistance, is to have an obliging human on standby to wrestle with the CAPTCHA test on your behalf.

Robin Christopherson, October 2012Public Technology logo

This article first appeared in Robin's blog for PublicTechnology.net

AbilityNet announces the first ever Technology4Good Youth Awards

Make your pitch to a Dragon's Den at Windsor Castle and win £5,000...

The Technology4Good Youth Awards are an exciting new competition to encourage young people to use accessible technology to help make the world a better place. Shortlisted groups will receive three months mentoring from some of the UK’s top businesses and charities and the winner be chosen at an Awards Ceremony at Windsor Castle, with trophies and a cash prize for the winners to help develop their ideas into a real project. The Awards are organised by two charities - AbilityNet and Groundwork - and are supported by BT and a range of commercial and not for profit partners.

Technology4Good Youth Awards

The Technology4Good Youth Awards build on the enormous success of Technology4Good Awards, which were launched by Abilitynet in 2010:

For further information:

Website: www.technology4goodawards.org.uk/youth
Twitter: @tech4goodawards
Facebook: www.facebook.com/abilitynet

Please share this information with any teachers, youth leaders and young people you think would like to enter.

Why are disabled people treated like spammers?

As we all know, the internet is a far from equitable place as far as accessibility is concerned. Despite general legislation enshrined in the Equality Act and the Disability Equality Duty, specific recommendations in the form of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and an enforcing body – the Equality and Human Rights Commission – cyberspace is still far from being a level playing field for those of us ‘exceptional’ enough to be using adaptive or assistive technology. Ironically, one of the biggest bugbears for accessibility campaigners is a scheme conceived to protect users and websites from the kind of security breaches and identity abuse for which the internet is becoming increasingly infamous.

The CAPTCHA (or Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) is a code which humans can crack but which, currently, computers cannot.  The distorted image of a character sequence is the most commonly encountered form and usually appears as part of the registration process to enter or use a website or on-line service. If you can’t accurately interpret the code and correctly type it into a text box, you are unable to register - and the vast majority of sites provide no alternative.  Unless you can craletters saying CAPTCHAck the code you are effectively locked out.

Humans vs robots

The critical problem with CAPTCHA is that many humans cannot decipher the code either, and nor can the technologies they commonly use (screen reading software for example).  If you have a vision impairment, dyslexia or learning disability you may be unable to crack the code. The accessibility arm-lock that CAPTCHA represents is an ever-present problem for many millions of users world-wide.

Common CAPTCHA alternatives

The most common alternative is an audio version of the graphical image, providing a second chance at deciphering the code using an audio version that speaks out the characters or sometimes a series of numbers or words instead.  However, the audio distortion needed to obscure the code from malicious programs, can make it almost impossible to hear – even for people with no hearing impairment.  And even if when you manage to hear the content, the short-term memory recall demanded by the exercise may defeat the user anyway.
Other alternatives involve the selection of descriptions of images from drop-down lists and asking the user to decide if a randomly rotated image is upright; but these still require the user to have some useful vision and the ability to deduce the subject of the images.

One route of course is to ‘get round’ the problem altogether with solutions that demand either the cooperation of the website provider or the ability of the end user to enhance the functionality of his/her browser. One approach adopted by Google is to have a hidden link visible only to screen reader users (who are most adversely affected) that leads to a form where they can request to be registered for an account by someone in customer support, but this is slow and resource-intensive.

Community solutions

Empowering ‘community driven’ innovations such as ‘Webvisum’ fulfil a vital need to enhance accessibility, whilst arguably easing pressure on site owners to raise their game.  A browser-based ‘add-on’, available only for Firefox, Webvisum offers dozens of features which make life easier for blind and vision impaired surfers such as high contrast page viewing, link and focus highlighting, and, perhaps most importantly, it provides automated and instant CAPTCHA image solving.

Ask different types of questions

So far, so good, but even WebVisum cannot handle all CAPTCHA images.  The introduction of a series of random logic-based questions (such as the service provided by http://textcaptcha.com) is a far more accessible alternative to the graphical option. For example:

    Which word starts with "k" from the list: demanded, knead, triplet?

    The number of body parts in the list: dress, house, elbow and shirt is?

Although logic-based CAPTCHA offers more independence to those with sight problems, it has been subjected to criticism for demanding greater cognitive ability than the image-based variety.  Whilst not disputing this fact, it is also true to say that users with learning difficulties struggling with these kinds of questions, would be unlikely to be surfing the web without assistance anyway.

Intelligent bots are on their way!

The truth of the matter is that however hard we try to provide inclusive CAPTCHA, the ‘bots’ are always one small step behind and improving all the time – necessitating an arms race that leads to ever more distorted codes to crack. Even those who generate these more accessible options, warn that it is only a matter of time before their security is breached by the evolution of bot intelligence such as natural language interpretation technology.

CAPTCHAs are here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future.  The only failsafe solution if you require assistance, is to have an obliging human on standby to wrestle with the CAPTCHA test on your behalf.

Robin Christopherson, October 2012Public Technology logo

This article first appeared in Robin's blog for PublicTechnology.net

Siri vs Voice Assistant: An Accessibility View

Future of web apps logoThe battle intensifies …and disabled users win?

For some time now the two leading smartphone operating systems –Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android – have been vying for supremacy in the battle to have the best and quickest virtual assistant to help users with fast and intuitive ways to find out information and perform tasks.

AbilityNet Head of Digital Inclusion Robin Christopherson spoke at Future of Web Apps in London on 16 October 2012. This post is based on part of his talk.

Whilst these in-built artificial intelligence agents are hard at work making life easier for all smartphone users there is one group that is benefitting from the escalating efforts of the tech giants more than any other; the disabled community. But before we go any further with that thought let’s look at how the competitors are shaping up.

Siri vs Voice Assistant head-to-head: the video evidence

siri and google voice assistant logosBoth Apple’s ‘Siri’ and Google’s ‘Voice Assistant’ are able to tell you Winston Churchill’s birthday, what an ounce of Gold or any foreign currency is worth at today’s prices, whether it will rain this afternoon, turn-by-turn directions to your nearest pizza place, and pictures of pigmy marmosets (officially the cutest monkeys in the world). But a painstaking perusal of the many Youtube videos of phone face-offs between iOS6 and Jellybean provides some interesting results.

First is a good head-to-head test of the sort of questions we all use our AIs for every day: Siri vs. Google Voice: 21 Questions For iPhone 5 And Jelly Bean 4.1 From watching this I think you’d agree that there’s nothing between them for accuracy - but Google’s Voice Assistant wins hands-down on speed.

So far so good, but what about if we ask them something a little more challenging?

In another video Jelly Bean Samsung Galaxy S3 (Google Voice) vs (Siri) iPhone 5, we see that Google has some way to go on the tougher questions. I know that there is a vast variety of questions we could ask these assistants, and that the results might come out differently in each case, but I was unable to find a review that came out in Voice Assistant’s favour when their intelligence is pushed to the limit.

So what does voice recognition have to do with accessibility?

This is all very exciting (or at least I think it is). It’s shaving valuable seconds off the tasks we try to cram in to our already overcrowded lives, but what’s it got to do with disability and why is the disabled community the biggest winner in this escalating better artificial assistance arms race?

It’s to do with those valuable seconds that these apps save us.

For disabled users such as myself (I’m blind) what Siri can do in five seconds might take me five or sometimes ten minutes. In many cases I might not be able to manage to find what I’m looking for at all because the websites I’m using are inaccessible to my screen-reading software. A similarly slow and painful experience is had by many who can’t use a mouse. Try using your site from the keyboard and you’ll soon see what we mean – it’ll either not work at all or it’ll take you whole minutes to get where you want to go.

Robin at Future of Web Design London, 2011Everyone’s a winner?

So for the blind, the motor-impaired, those with learning disabilities or dyslexia, anyone who loves the KISS principal (and which of us doesn’t?), and for positively millions of smartphone users out there, this AI arms race has benefits far beyond the modest convenience bonus for by the average use. Even the contenders themselves have no idea how far this thing will go…

Please use the comments to tell me what you think the future will look like.

UPDATE: You can read Robin's speaker notes from FOWA London 2012 on this site

Follow Robin on Twitter @usa2day

Follow AbilityNet on Twitter @abilitynet

Stephen Hawking accepts AbilityNet Award

Professor Stephen Hawking was the toast of this year’s Technology4Good Awards, winning the AbilityNet Special Award for Excellence in Accessibility.

The awards ceremony was hosted by broadcast presenter and journalist Mariella Frostrup, at BT Centre, London. Professor Hawking couldn't be at the event but the 200-strong audience heard a specially recorded acceptance speech which can be heard in the soundtrack of the video above and can also be viewed on the T4G Award YouTube channel.

Professor Hawking one of nine prizewinners in categories covering volunteering and innovation to fundraising and community action. More about the Awards at www.technology4goodawards.org.uk

Fitness websites exclude Team GB’s Paralympians of the future

The Olympics and Paralympics have given many of us renewed enthusiasm for sport, or at least a firmer resolve to get fit. Whilst fitness clubs are an extremely useful means of helping us to get in shape and stay that way, for people with a disability or impairment, they are often the only feasible way they can safely get fit or take up a sport in a supported environment.

Our review of five of the top gym club websites found that most are either difficult or impossible for disabled people to use – which means they won’t be able to follow through on their new found zest for fitness and, who knows, perhaps become Team GB’s Paralympians of the future.

AbilityNet’s State of the eNation Reports are quarterly accessibility and usability reviews of a number of websites in a particular sector. The report includes detailed analysis of each website.

Download the full report from the Advice and Information section of our website

Finding funding for an adapted computer system

Despite falling prices, the cost of a suitable computer system is still beyond the means of many disabled people, especially those on a low income. This factsheet provides information and advice on how disabled people may obtain alternative funding for assistive technology that could make a significant difference to their quality of life.

Winners announced for Technology4Good Awards 2012

The winners of this year's Technology4Good Awards were announced at an Awards Ceremony held in London on 6 July. Over 250 entries were whittled down to just eight winners by a panel of judges form business and charity and the results were announced by broadcaster and journalist Mariella Frostrup. The Awards are run by AbilityNet and BT to celebrate the hard work of people who use computers and the internet to make the world a better place.

And the winners are:

  • AbilityNet Excellence in Accessibility Award Professor Stephen Hawking
  • Accessibility Award LexAble
  • BT Get IT Together Award Preston City Council/CitizenZone
  • Community Impact Award The Stroke Survivors Group
  • Community News Award Radio Free Brighton
  • Digital Fundraising Award Child’s i Foundation
  • Innovation Award Action Aid
  • IT Volunteer of the Year Award Alison Crerar
  • Working Together Award Social Care Institute for Excellence
  • Winner of Winners Award Child’s i Foundation

A very special part of the evening came when Professor Stephen Hawking was awarded the AbilityNet Excellence in Accessibility Award. Although not able to attend in person he sent a special message that underlined the positive role that technology can play in the lives of disabled people.

The Technology4Good Youtube channel provides a glimpse of what happened at the event - including the message sent by Professor Hawking. The channel also features interviews with many of the 200 people who attended.

More information the Technology4Good Awards website at www.technology4goodawards.org.uk