Google I/O 2018 and Android Accessibility

Posted by Rob Mineault on

It’s been a pretty good week for anyone with a vested interest in Accessibility and technology. Not only did Microsoft announce that it would be committing to investing 25 million dollars into an AI for Accessibility five year project, but Google’s annual developer’s conference, Google I/O, took place during which a host of new accessibility apps and improvements were announced.


Well, it may not be the most intuitive name for a developer’s conference, but that’s what happens when you have techies and engineers involved in the marketing efforts. Either that or they just thought that ‘Google-Palooza’ would be just too hard to spell and 'Nerdstock' would sound too dated.

Image of the Google I/O 2018 LogoKidding aside, Google I/O is Google’s version of an Apple Launch Event that you’ve surely heard a lot about in the years past. It’s a chance not only for Google to announce new products and/or improvements that are coming soon, but also for bespectacled engineers and developers to emerge from their cubicles and be treated to rock star treatment for a few days. Watching the livestream of Google I/O is definitely a surreal experience, watching people who look like they should be fixing your cable box walking onto a stage amidst laser light shows and a cheering crowd. It feels like you’re watching a concert in an alternate reality where Buddy Holly is the lead singer for Aerosmith.

To be fair, Google I/O is at its heart a developer’s conference, which means it’s mainly for Google to get developers up to speed on any hardware it’s currently working on or software updates that are coming down the pipe. So of course it’s going to be a bit of a Coachella for geeks.

That being said, quite often the general public will also pay attention to events like these since Google tends to also make larger announcements about what’s is in the future for Google products in order to stir up excitement.


Google didn’t disappoint. While I won’t spend a lot of time going through the general things that were covered both in the keynote as well as subsequent developer sessions, I will mention that there was a lot of emphasis on refinements to the AI that powers the Google Assistant. In particular, one demonstration both wowed and chilled those watching as a new AI system called Duplex was able to call two businesses and book appointments in such a natural and responsive manner that the people on the other end had no idea they were talking to a machine. While Duplex isn’t nearly ready to be rolled out anytime soon, it did showcase the work that Google is doing to make their Digital Assistants more natural and easy to interact with.


I know, I know .. you’ve come to an Assistive Technology website to ready an Assistive Technology blog, so let’s dive into what you’ve been waiting for – Accessibility.

This year saw a few major announcements in the arena of Accessibility, one of which was actually included in the Keynote Speech which was nice to see. That particular announcement was that Gboard, Google’s virtual keyboard bundled into Android, would now support Morse Code. This new feature, when paired alongside Switch Access, can now allow users to interact with the keyboard through external devices and is a step forward for those that have physical access challenges who may utilize a switch and Morse code as a communication method.

Screenshots of the Lookout App on a SmartphoneDuring its Accessibility showcase later in the day, the Google Accessibility Team made a few other announcements of what’s new and forthcoming. Among these announcements, was the unveiling of a new app for the Visually Impaired called LookoutLookout is able to capture a live image of what is in front of it (using a smart phone’s camera) and use machine learning to detect relevant objects such as people or objects or signs. It then gives the user an auditory cue as to the object and its location (such as ‘chair, three o clock’, which would indicate that a chair is to the right of the user). Lookout is designed to be used with minimal interference, and Google promises that the machine learning component of the app will grow and learn with the user in terms of delivering cues that are relevant and applicable depending on the situation the user is in.

iOS users may think that all of this sounds a bit familiar, with Microsoft releasing SeeingAI earlier in the year. The apps are definitely similar in ways, but with no Android version of the app in the foreseeable future, Lookout will definitely be of interest to the visually impaired Android community who are looking for such a solution. There is one other major distinction between the two, however, that should be mentioned. Lookout’s processing takes place within the app on the device, so it will work without an internet connection.

No word yet on when Lookout would be available in the App store, but it’s expected to be within the coming year.

Google Accessibility also announced a new Accessibility service called Sound Amplifier that will help understand conversations in loud environments using just a smartphone and a set of normal headphones. The App comes with the ability to tweak and customize a host of settings in order to maximize the ability to dial down ambient noise and enhance relevant sounds, such as conversation or television sounds. While anyone who has ever tried to have a conversation in a crowded restaurant can see the appeal of this feature, the hard of hearing community will hopefully be the true beneficiary to this technology given the wide range of customization features which would make the ability to tweak the settings to levels which would work best for their level of hearing loss an easy endeavor.  Sounds Amplifier will be part of Android P when it’s released later this year.

The team went on to showcase another developing service, this one in the Cognitive space, called Select to Speak with OCR. This new service has the ability for users to select text in the camera view or within a photo and have that text read to them and highlighted. Scanning and Reading systems can be a very powerful tool to a wide range of users across multiple disabilities, so having this as part of Android P is another move in the right direction and could prove to be a very powerful tool for those who require text to be more accessible.

Graphic showing the hierarchy of Android Framework in the development processThe remainder of the announcements, while certainly not as sexy or flashy as these new apps and services, were still fundamental improvements to Accessibility on the Android platform. These included new APIs for developers and improvements to the Android Framework to make it easier to ensure that apps that they are developing are accessible. Given that Accessibility is becoming a wider conversation and more developers are understanding that there are wide swaths of under-served populations using Android, these new APIs are a welcome development. For us end-users of course, this could mean that the number of Accessible apps coming in the future could continue to increase as developers continue to have better tools at their disposal to ensure maximum Accessibility.

The Team also made a brief mention of Voice Access, the long awaited service which would allow users with Physical Access challenges to control their smartphone through voice commands, saying that it was nearly ready for release and that they expect to see it available this year.

All in all, it was a good showing and many of the new services and features are a step in the right direction. It’s clear that Google is taking Accessibility seriously, following Apple and Microsoft’s similar efforts this year in stepping up their development of accessible offerings.

One minor disappointment, however, was the exclusion of any mention of forthcoming improvements to Braille support in Android. Anyone using Braille and Android can attest to the fact that Google needs some work in this regard in order to catch up to Apple and the Braille support they offer. Hopefully we will see some updates in regards to BrailleBack in the coming months.

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