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Apple’s Voice Control improves accessibility OS-wide on all its devices – TechCrunch

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Apple is known for fluid, intuitive user interfaces, but none of that matters if you can’t click, tap, or drag because you don’t have a finger to do so with. For users with disabilities the company is doubling down on voice-based accessibility with the powerful new Voice Control feature on Macs and iOS (and iPadOS) devices.

Many devices already support rich dictation, and of course Apple’s phones and computers have used voice-based commands for years (I remember talking to my Quadra). But this is a big step forward that makes voice controls close to universal — and it all works offline.

The basic idea of Voice Control is that the user has both set commands and context-specific ones. Set commands are things like “Open Garage Band” or “File menu” or “Tap send.” And of course some intelligence has gone into making sure you’re actually saying the command and not writing it, like in that last sentence.

But that doesn’t work when you have an interface that pops up with lots of different buttons, fields, and labels. And even if every button or menu item could be called by name, it might be difficult or time-consuming to speak everything out loud.

To fix this Apple simply attaches a number to every UI item in the foreground, which a user can show by saying “show numbers.” Then they can simply speak the number or modify it with another command, like “tap 22.” You can see a basic workflow below, though of course without the audio cues it loses a bit:

Remember that these numbers may be more easily referenced by someone with little or no vocal ability, and could in fact be selected from using a simpler input like a dial or blow tube. Gaze tracking is good but it has its limitations, and this is a good alternative.

For something like maps, where you could click anywhere, there’s a grid system for selecting where to zoom in or click. Just like Blade Runner! Other gestures like scrolling and dragging are likewise supported.

Dictation has been around for a bit but it’s been improved as well. You can select and replace entire phrases, like “Replace ‘be right back’ with ‘on my way.’ ” Other little improvements will be noted and appreciated by those who use the tool often.

All the voice processing is done offline, which makes it both quick and robust to things like signal problems or use in foreign countries where data might be hard to come by. And the intelligence built into Siri lets it recognize names and context-specific words that may not be part of the base vocabulary. Improved dictation means selecting emoji and adding dictionary items is a breeze.

Right now Voice Control is supported by all native apps, and third party apps that use Apple’s accessibility API should be able to take advantage of it easily. And even if they don’t do it specifically, numbers and grids should still work just fine, since all the OS needs to know are the locations of the UI items. These improvements should appear in accessibility options as soon as a device is updated to iOS 13 or Catalina.

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Google will soon default to blurring explicit image search results

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Enlarge / Google’s new “Blur” setting for SafeSearch will soon be the default, blurring explicit images unless you’re logged in and over 18.

Aurich Lawson

Google has debuted a new default SafeSearch setting, somewhere between “on” and “off,” that automatically blurs explicit images in search results for most people.

In a blog post timed to Safer Internet Day, Google outlined a number of measures it plans to implement to “protect democracies worldwide,” secure high-risk individuals, improve password management, and protect credit card numbers. Tucked into a series of small-to-medium announcements is a notable change to search results, Google’s second core product after advertising.

A new setting, rolling out “in the coming months,” “will blur explicit imagery if it appears in Search results when SafeSearch filtering isn’t turned on,” writes Google’s Jen Fitzpatrick, senior vice president of Core Systems & Experiences. “This setting will be the new default for people who don’t already have the SafeSearch filter turned on, with the option to adjust settings at any time.”

Google’s explanatory image (seen above) shows someone logged in and searching for images of “Injury.” A notice shows that “Google turned on SafeSearch blurring,” which “blurs explicit images in your search results.” One of the example image results—”Dismounted Complex Blast Injury (DCBI)” from ResearchGate—is indeed quite explicit, as far as human viscera and musculature goes. Google provides one last check if you click on that blurred image: “This image may contain explicit content. SafeSearch blurring is on.”

Explicit images, such as the "blast injury" shown in Google's example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.
Enlarge / Explicit images, such as the “blast injury” shown in Google’s example, will be blurred by default in Google search images, unless a user is over 18, signs in, and turns it off.

If you click “View image,” you see life’s frail nature. If you click “Manage setting,” you can choose between three settings: Filter (where explicit results don’t show up at all), Blur (where both blurring and are-you-sure clicks occur), and Off (where you see “all relevant results, even if they’re explicit”).

Signed-in users under the age of 18 automatically have SafeSearch enabled, blocking content including “pornography, violence, and gore.” With this change, Google will automatically be blurring explicit content for everybody using Google who doesn’t log in, stay logged in, and specifically ask to show it instead. It’s a way to prevent children from getting access to explicit images, but also, notably, a means of ensuring people are logged in to Google if they’re looking for something… very specific. An incognito window, it seems, just won’t do.

Google turned on SafeSearch as its default for under-18 users in August 2021, having been pressured by Congress to better protect children across its services, including search and YouTube.

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OnePlus takes on the iPad with the OnePlus Pad

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Android tablets are on their way back, and one of Android’s biggest manufacturers (we’re talking about OnePlus parent company BBK) is bringing an Android tablet to the US for the first time. Say hello to the OnePlus Pad, an 11.61-inch tablet with an optional keyboard and stylus. We don’t know how much it costs, so don’t ask. There’s also no hard release date, but preorders start in April.

What we do know are the specs. The 11.61-inch display is a 144 Hz LCD, with a resolution of 2800×2000. That’s an aspect ratio of 7:5, or a bit wider than a 4:3 display, which OnePlus claims is a “book-like” aspect ratio. The SoC is a MediaTek Dimensity 9000. That’s a rarity in the US, but it’s basically a generic ARM design for 2022 flagship phones, with one 3.05 GHz ARM Cortex X2 CPU, three A710 CPUs, and four A510 CPUs. It’s a 4 nm chip with an ARM Mali-G710 MC10. You also get 8GB of RAM (there’s an option for 12GB), 128GB of UFS 3.1 storage, and a 9510 mAh battery. This is not in the super-flagship tablet territory and should (hopefully) come with an affordable price tag.

As always, OnePlus’ trademark quick-charging is here, and it’s 67 W. On a tiny phone battery, that kind of charging will usually take a phone from 0-100 in around a half hour, but with a big tablet battery, a full charge still takes “just over 60 minutes.” In the fine print, OnePlus actually gives a warning against any repair attempts, saying, “The battery has been especially encrypted for safety purposes. Please go to an official OnePlus service center to repair your battery or get a genuine replacement battery.” I’ve never heard of a battery being “encrypted” before, but I think they mean there is a serial number check in the firmware somewhere and that it will presumably refuse to work if you replace it. As for the possibility of an “official OnePlus service center” actually existing, there is a business finder on the OnePlus India website, but not one in the US, so it’s looking like mail-in service only.

The tablet is made up of an aluminum unibody that weighs 555 g. The sides are rounded over, which should make it feel comfortable to hold. It comes with four speakers, a USB-C port on the right side, and a set of three pogo pins on the bottom for the keyboard. The back has a circular camera bump that makes it look like a close cousin of the OnePlus 11, and it holds a single 13 MP camera. We also hope you like green, because that appears to be the only color.

There’s no fingerprint sensor at all. There is a cutout that looks like it might be a fingerprint sensor, but we guess that’s just a radio signal window. There’s also no GPS listed on the spec sheet. We know next to nothing about the “OnePlus Magnetic Keyboard” and “OnePlus Stylo” pen. The keyboard has a small trackpad that supports swiping. The pen has a 2 ms response time, which sounds pretty good. That’s about it. Presumably we’ll know more in April.

Listing image by OnePlus

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Report: Sonos’ next flagship speaker will be the spatial audio-focused Era 300

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Enlarge / Sonos One smart speaker.

Sonos will release a new flagship speaker “in the coming months,” according to a report Monday from The Verge. The publication said this will be called the Era 300 and that Sonos is prioritizing the device’s spatial audio capabilities.

The Verge claimed that Sonos is aiming for the Era 300 to be its most accurate speaker yet. It pointed to a heightened focus on making Dolby Atmos content shine, as well as improving music using spatial audio. According to The Verge, the Era 300 will be a “multidirectional speaker built to get the most from spatial audio” by way of a “completely re-architected acoustic design.”

We don’t have deeper details, like specs or pricing. However, Wi-Fi 6 and a USB-C port are apparently “likely,” and Bluetooth support is also possible. According to The Verge, Sonos has at least looked into including all these features on the Era 300.

The Verge first started reporting about the Era 300, codenamed Optimo 2, in August. This week, it identified more evidence of the speaker’s development in the form of two recent documents from TV mount-maker Sanus that name the Era 300.

In August, The Verge, citing “early, work-in-progress images” it reportedly viewed, said that Sonos’ upcoming flagship speaker would include “an arsenal of drivers, including several that fire in different directions from beneath the shell between the front speaker grille and backplate.” It also suggested a more beefed-up product, with twice the RAM and eight times the flash memory as the highest-specced Sonos speaker today.

The Verge also claimed this week that Sonos is working on a lower-priced Era 100, suggesting that it could include Dolby Atmos support and serve as a follow-up to the Sonos One, which has a $179 MSRP as of writing.

Should the Era 300 truly debut soon, it will face competition from Apple’s recent $299, full-sized HomePod revival, which supports spatial audio with Dolby Atmos with Apple apps and Apple TV 4K. Besides superior audio quality, a new Sonos flagship could score points with shoppers by playing better with non-Apple devices, such as by including Bluetooth and by besting the Apple speaker’s Wi-Fi 4 support.

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