Accessibility Club Conference, Berlin 2018

Accessibility Club (or a11yclub) is a regular meetup held in Berlin about all things web accessibility and assistive technology. Today they held their first all-day conference, at the beautiful Spreespeicher, next to the river Spree, looking onto the Oberbaumbrucke (bridge), in the Friedrichshain district.

The first speaker was Molly Watt, a prolific blogger and advocate of inclusive technology. Molly has Usher Syndrome, a condition that causes both Deafness and blindness, and although she has a wealth of knowledge of web accessibility and how it can be enabled, her talk was mainly around her personal experiences of travelling to events (such as today’s conference), and the many considerations that need to be factored in. If accommodation needs to be booked, the hotel needs to be contacted directly to ensure they are prepared for accommodating Molly’s Guide Dog. Molly also needs to check the route to the hotel/venue to ensure there are grassy areas for the Guide Dog. Travel arrangements also need to be planned carefully and thoroughly, although sometimes factors beyond Molly’s control can lead to major issues, such as when a trip overseas resulted in Molly’s Guide Dog being quarantined.

Holger Dieterich speaking about Wheelmap

Next up was Holger Dieterich, who talked about his company’s work on, an online map for finding wheelchair accessible places. Thanks to around 70 volunteers, working in 25 different languages, almost 1 million public places around the world have now been ranked in terms of their accessibility. He also spoke about, a free-of-charge API (currently in closed beta) providing access to standardised location-based accessibility data.

Leonie Watson gave a technical talk on the subject of web page performance, with a specific focus on assistive technology such as screen readers. She went into detail on the technical factors that can affect performance of different screen readers in particular browsers. The TTI (Time To Interaction) for screen reader users can vary greatly depending on how an operating system and web browser expose a page’s content to a screen reader; more detail can be found in Leonie’s slide deck, which she has made available here.

Leonie Watson speaking about web page performance for assistive technology

Charlie Owen

Charlie Owen gave an incredibly passionate talk about the issues that might be faced when advocating accessibility in a large organisation, and also very robust arguments in favour of making accessibility a core element of every project. The moral/ethical reasons for making web content accessible to all are not the only reasons. There are other, more commercial factors that should be highlighted, such as contractual obligations (perhaps as part of a Service Level Agreement) as well as legal obligations for certain kinds of organisations (such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in the USA).

Last speaker of the day was Alistair Duggin, Head of Accessibility at Government Digital Service, responsible for making sure that GOV.UK is as accessible as possible. He spoke about his 4-part strategy for making digital products accessible, revolving around these four core principles;

  • Design for ease of use
  • Design for easy adaptation
  • Design complementary alternatives
  • Design to work with assistive technology

Amongst the many observations he made about the accessibility work that’s been done at GDS over the last few years, one that I know from personal experience holds true is that baking in accessibility from the beginning of a project is much quicker and easier than having to retrofit or patch it in towards the end, as a release date is looming.

Posters designed by Karwai Pun on Dos and don'ts on designing for accessibility

The GDS has a wealth of resources for designing and building accessible products, from the Service Manual, to the Accessibility Blog and the “Do’s and Don’ts” posters on designing for accessibility.

To find out more about Accessibility Club and any upcoming events you can follow them on Twitter.

Beat Saber

From the moment I first read about Beat Saber, I suspected it was going to be something I would love. Now that it’s finally available for Oculus Rift and I’ve spent some time with it, I can confirm that it’s every bit as good as I’d hoped.

Beat Saber is essentially a Virtual Reality rhythm game, although that description does little to convey what a ridiculously fun, engaging experience it is. The aim is to slash blocks, in time with music, with a pair of blades, within a highly stylised, neon-lit virtual environment.

The game’s developers describe Beat Saber as “a mashup of Guitar Hero and Fruit Ninja in VR”. The one factor they neglect to mention (presumably to try and avoid any legal wrangles with Lucasfilm) is that the pair of blades the player controls look uncannily like light sabers. Anyone with a passing interest in Star Wars will no doubt jump at the chance to wave around a pair of realistically rendered sabers while smashing cubes out of mid-air, and watching them shatter around you. The actual music featured in the game might be a bit more subjective, as the soundtrack consists entirely of loud, up tempo EDM. It’s the perfect soundtrack for the nature of the gameplay, but it might not be to everybody’s taste.

Beat Saber is without a doubt the most fun experience I’ve had in VR. It’s definitely a game that is perfectly suited to the medium. It’s just a shame that at this moment, the hardware required to run it (Beat Saber is currently available for Oculus Rift and HTV Vive, which in turn require a relatively powerful PC) makes it inaccessible to many gamers. However for anybody who does own one of those platforms, let’s be honest, the range of high quality VR experiences available right now is fairly limited. And with that in mind I really can’t recommend Beat Saber highly enough.

London Accessibility Meetup #10

Over the years, since I started working on the web, I’ve been to various industry & tech conferences. They’ve varied in content; sometimes they’re very technically oriented and deal mostly with coding, sometimes they’re aimed at a more creative audience, or sometimes (like in the case of the TEDx program) they’re not aimed at anyone in particular but can be very inspiring all the same. Since I became more actively involved in Accessibility, conferences and meetups dealing exclusively with how to make the web more accessible have been hard to find, at least in North West England. One meetup group that’s existed for some time now is the London Accessibility Meetup. Since I’m currently working in London I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to get along to one of their meetups, so I went along to last night’s event at Barclays in Canary Wharf.

This was certainly the classiest web meetup I’ve been to so far! Barclays’ Canary Wharf HQ is huge, and pretty impressive, and the refreshments on offer were more in keeping with an expensive wedding – no cold pizza to be found here.

The first talk came from Paul Smyth, Head of Digital Accessibility at Barclays, who is himself visually impaired. Paul talked about how Barclays are approaching not just web accessibility, but accessibility to their services in general, including talk cash machines and high visibility debit cards for visually impaired customers.

Paul Smyth discussing Barclays' approach to accessibility

You can find out more about Barclays’ accessibility program here.

The second talk was from Heydon Pickering, an Accessibility Consultant with The Paciello Group and author of Inclusive Design Patterns. Heydon’s talk was on the theme of Priorities, and I think it would be fair to say that it was a fair bit more irreverent than Paul’s talk. He started by discussing, and its complete lack of accessibility (due to, amongst other things, lazy/non-sensical use of JavaScript), and went on to cover other topics such as how many users actually care about features like subtle drop shadows around buttons – using a nice table comparing Feature to number of F*cks given…

Heydon Pickering jokingly presenting a quirky new concept for

Both talks were really informative, and although I got the impression a few folks in the audience found Heydon’s manner slightly offensive, I thought it was very refreshing and I’d happily listen to him talk again.

The next London Accessibility Meetup is scheduled for Monday 12th February. If you’re thinking of going along, I might see you there!


Oculus Rift

Oculus recently launched the Summer of Rift campaign, a season of special events and offers to promote their Rift headset and various third party software titles. For a limited time, the “Rift + Touch” bundle is on sale for $399/£399. The previous price was in the region of £700 for both the headset and touch controllers, so it seemed like a good opportunity for me to take a fairly major step up from my Cardboard viewer and GearVR.

Oculus Rift with packaging

First impressions were very good. The hardware is beautifully packaged, and really gives you the feeling that this is a premium product. Setting and calibrating the headset and sensors was a fairly painless experience – although in my case the space I’m using the Rift in is much smaller than the ‘Guardian’ software (a tool to prevent you bumping into/falling over real world objects when wearing the headset) would like, so I had to skip that part. Once the hardware is set up, the first VR experience you’re presented with is First Contact, which serves as an introduction to both the headset and touch controllers. The first time you look around, then realise that you can interact with your virtual environment via the touch controllers, it’s a pretty incredible experience.

Tilt Brush by Google

So far during the time I’ve spent using the Oculus Rift, the most striking experiences have been just that – experiences – rather than traditional games or tools.

Google’s Tilt Brush is technically a painting tool, but for me there was a major wow factor in drawing streaks of light, stars and psychedelic flashing rainbows in a 3D space, and being able to move into and around the paintings as I was working. It’s also pretty mind-blowing seeing what slightly more talented (!) artists are coming up with using Tilt Brush.

Fantasynth, by HelloEnjoy, is a stunning “audio-reactive experience” taking the user through a procedurally populated environment where the visuals and geometry synchronise with music.


There’s still a huge amount of fun to be had though from games in a VR environment, particularly games that have been designed from the ground up to work in VR. Robo Recall for example is a title that you can download for free once you’ve registered your Touch controllers, and involves battling hordes of humanoid robots with a gun in each hand (although there are slightly more creative ways of defeating enemies, once you get to grips with the environment).

Robo Recall

Overall I’ve been hugely impressed by the Rift so far, although it does still feel like a technology in its infancy, at least where the consumer market is concerned. Both of the currently available high-end VR systems, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, require a fairly powerful PC to run. There’s also the need for the headset to be connected to the PC by a physical cable, which can get in the way when moving around the virtual space. One additional, and unexpected issue I’ve had, is interference with nearby wifi connections and bluetooth devices when the Rift is running. After some Googling it seems as though the USB 3 connections required for the Rift’s headset and sensors can actually emit interference at 2.4 GHz radio frequencies (see here, here and here for more information), so I have to remember to disconnect these cables when the Rift isn’t in use. Still, the Rift hardware is very well designed and the current bundle deal makes it that bit more accessible. I would expect Oculus to release a new improved iteration of their headset at some point in the near future, but for now I’m happy with the experiences the Rift provides.

The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge

ET riding a Sinclair C5

Nestled in a small, nondescript industrial estate in Cambridge is the Centre for Computing History, a museum of sorts with a large collection of vintage computers, games consoles, peripherals, ET riding a Sinclair C5 (obviously) and more. Much of the collection can be used by visitors. It was interesting to see my iPad-literate son playing with (or attempting to) the first ever Mac, although neither of my kids were as fascinated as I was with the collection of 80s video games. I have to admit, playing with an original and fully-functioning Grandstand Astro Wars unit gave me a bit of a Proustian rush and actually made me quite emotional.

Logic gates

There’s more than just nostalgia on display here though, the centre has four learning zones where visitors can get involved in exercises from composing computer based music, to controlling light systems with a Raspberry Pi.

As well as the regular, more permanent exhibits the Centre also hosts a number of events; Hackathons, gaming nights, and computing festivals. There’s a list of upcoming events here.

Turing Ferranti machine



Entry level VR – Google Cardboard

I recently picked up a Google Cardboard viewer. I was interested to see exactly what kind of Virtual Reality experience it could offer, given that it’s probably the most accessible VR tech currently available (assuming you already have access to a smartphone).

The cardboard structure feels pretty low-tech, but for a few pounds it’ll convert a regular smartphone into a reasonably able VR device, which is pretty impressive. Obviously pressing hard cardboard edges against your face isn’t the most comfortable viewing experience, but in short bursts it’s tolerable.

After a few viewing issues (you need to calibrate the Cardboard app for your viewer, and initially the app wouldn’t recognise the QR code on mine) I was up and running and trying out the demos in the official Cardboard app. The demos serve as a reasonable introduction to VR, and my kids certainly found them lots of fun, but for slightly more meaningful experiences you need to look elsewhere. The official Star Wars app has a VR section called Jakku Spy, which features some short but pretty impressive 360 movies. You can also find 360 videos on YouTube, like Google’s own ‘Inside Abbey Road’, which you can see below – although for the full effect it really needs to be seen through a Cardboard viewer.

For a more comprehensive introduction to Google Cardboard you can check out the official page here.


Creating a watch face for Android Wear

I recently picked up a Motorola 360 smartwatch, and after I worked out how to get a full day out of the battery (basically try not to use it much) the next thing I wanted to do was create my own watch face for it. One of the things I like most about Android is how you can tinker with the UI to your heart’s content (if you’re into that kind of thing), and Android Wear is no different.

A quick look on Google will tell you there are plenty of ways of creating your own faces for Android Wear, but the method I opted for was using an app called WearFaces. If you visit the app’s website you can download template images to get you started (square or round, depending on the watch you’re creating for) – although these are just for the face itself; separate image files need to be created for the dial and the hands. Once you’ve created your custom watch face (as a massive geek I had to go for a Star Wars theme) you need to load your images into the app – on your phone rather than the watch itself. Once you’ve added your images, hit the ‘Send to Wear’ button to send your custom watch face via bluetooth to your device.

wearfaces app on Android

If you happen to have an Android Wear watch with a round face and would like a Star Wars themed face for it, you can download my custom WearFaces pack here.