When Apple announced iPhone X in September, some totally blind users of the product were concerned that we may be excluded from the next big leap in biometric authentication, Face ID. When it comes to experiential paradigm shifts, I think Apple has done enough to earn our trust in this regard, but I was curious to find out what they’d done to ensure that Face ID was accessible.
I got in touch with Apple right away and as I blogged back then, it was clear that Apple had given careful thought to ensuring that Face ID would work as easily as possible for VoiceOver users.
Yesterday, my daughter Heidi and I put together a podcast on unboxing and setting up iPhone X. Rather than learn how things worked, then put an instructional podcast together, I felt that it would be more interesting to just let the recording software run as I, as a totally blind guy, figured out how to come to terms with all the changes in iPhone X.
My first attempt at setting up Face ID took a long time and was cumbersome. What was impressive, though, was that the software stuck with me, giving me meaningful instructions about how to complete the set-up process, even though I was making a much bigger deal of the moving one’s head in a circle thing than was necessary.
By the second attempt later in the podcast, I was magnitudes faster.
And by the final attempt at the end, while I don’t think I can quite award myself ninja status just yet, I had a major “aha” moment as I realised that setting up this thing is much faster than setting up touch ID.
If you invoke VoiceOver, the screen reading software that makes it possible for blind people like me to use an iPhone, at the beginning of the set-up process, Apple turns attention mode off. This means that you don’t have to be looking directly at the camera, eyes open, before your iPhone unlocks. This makes it much more likely that, as a blind person, you’ll be able to unlock your iPhone. As long as a good bit of your face is in the view, you’ll be fine
There’s a downside of this that has concerned me, and it relates to security. With attention mode disabled, it would be possible for someone to snatch an iPhone out of a blind person’s hand, wave it in front of their face, unlock it, and do a runner. I’m not being an alarmist fantasist, I know personally of a blind person who, when sitting in a cafe, had their phone snatched literally out of their hand.
When attention mode is disabled, Apple makes no mention of the consequences of doing so.
Now that I have more time to play, I decided to see what would happen if I enabled attention mode. I didn’t expect to be able to unlock my iPhone this way, but you know what they say about people who assume. By way of background, as I mentioned in my previous post about Face ID, when you look at my eyes, which are not prosthetic, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m blind. My eyes, I’m told, look kind of sunken, and I find it hard to make it look like my eyes are open. And yet, to my surprise, I can unlock iPhone X when attention mode is enabled. It’s fractionally more hit and miss, I must remind myself to be sure my eyes are open, but it works.
It even works in the dark. I’ve been unlocking my iPhone X successfully, attention mode and all, at 3 AM with no lights on.
I’m doing long-distance bus travel this weekend, so naturally I’ve been thinking about the joys and risks of having the hottest technology in the world at present on my person. Knowing that, exceeding all expectations, I can turn attention mode on, is reassuring.
I believe my strategy will be to turn attention mode off when I’m at home for extended periods, and turn it on when I’m out and about. A tech-savvy sighted person may well end up doing the same.
I’m only about 18 hours in at this point, but as many who listen to my podcasts will know, I bought the iPhone X somewhat grudgingly as a business expense due to a number of training projects I’m involved in. Being blind and therefore not needing to see the screen, I often unlocked and used my previous iPhones in my pocket. That’s a uniquely blind use case, so one can hardly blame Apple for taking that away. Yes, I miss that, but there is something about this phone that makes me think I wouldn’t enjoy going back now. The gestures to go home, get to the app Switcher etc are fluid and already feel like second nature.
There will of course be plenty of updated material on iPhone X, wireless charging and more in the second edition of iOS 11 Without the Eye, which you get free even if you purchase now.
Thanks for your attention, and thanks to Apple for their attention to detail. No doubt I will participate in, and even generate, lively and somewhat esoteric debates about user interface in the years ahead, but when it comes to these big watershed moments, Apple tends to get it right.