The Google accessibility tool that will improve mobile devices for everyone

Google Voice Access in action

I recently wrote about my dream of a world where mobile interfaces are primarily audio driven.

If you think about it, screens are actually a terrible idea for a mobile interface. When you’re on the move, looking at a screen is the last thing you want to do. Unless you’re careful, you’ll run into a lamp post or step in a dog turd.

So I was excited to read about Google Voice Access, which will be part of Android N. It has been designed by Google as an accessibility tool to help people with motor impairments use their Android devices more easily. But like all good accessibility advances, it promises to benefit all users.

As this video shows, Voice Access provides a wide variety of voice commands over and above the standard “OK Google” commands people have been able to use up to now. In fact, it enables people to control everything on their device without ever needing to touch it.

Co.Design outlined some examples of the functionality:

For example, you could tell Voice Access to open settings, scroll down to the bottom of the screen, change an option, and then go back to the home screen—all using your voice. There’s also a host of sophisticated voice dictation commands, so you can tell Voice Access to text Mary that “dinner is at 8,” then edit the time before sending the message by simply saying “replace 8 with 7.”

While the main focus is to improve accessibility for those with motor impairments, Google are already aware of the wider benefits their new technology could bring.

There are the people who are permanently disabled, and then there are those who are “situationally disabled.” Situational disability can be as serious as a broken arm or as temporary as having your hands full with shopping bags. The point is that all users are situationally disabled on a regular basis, which means that accessibility features like Voice Access are for everyone—or they will be, eventually.

I certainly felt this last year when I broke my elbow, which made it harder for me to do virtually anything that involved moving.

But more pertinently, there was a more everyday scenario a couple of weeks ago when I really could have done with having a tool like Google Voice Access.

We were driving in an unfamiliar place. I was the passenger, but my phone was mounted on the dashboard so that we could use Google Maps to navigate.

During the journey, we decided to play some music. So I said “OK Google, play music” to begin an ‘I’m feeling lucky’ playlist. Then I could say “OK Google, open navigation” to bring back the navigation interface.

Google Play Music's downloaded only setting

But I quickly realised that listening to music would start using up loads of data because it was streaming from Google Play Music. Being the type that suffers from data anxiety, I wanted to switch on the option to play only music that was downloaded onto my device.

Unfortunately, there is no snappy voice command that I know of that could switch this setting. I couldn’t safely take the phone off the dashboard, so we just had to live with it.

By the looks of things, Google Voice Access would make this sort of action really easy to carry out in a safe manner. As the Fast.Co article notes, this approach could be more successful than car-specific interfaces like Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay. Both still rely on touch, but the fact is that this is downright dangerous while you are driving.

Voice Access is yet another example of how focusing on accessibility actually makes a product better for everyone.

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