Simulating low visual acuity

February 8, 2013

UPDATE: I’ve created a Chrome extension called NoCoffee that implements simulations for a number of vision problems.

I’ve been searching for something to simulate surfing with blurry vision. While blur is not a scientific representation of most visual disabilities, it does help us get an idea. Simulating vision loss while designing pages is highly useful — the number of people with visual disabilities is already high and expected to double by year 2020 (U.S. statistics).

We do have the Chrometric browser, which does a very good job simulating color perception issues. Unfortunately, Chrometric has some downsides. For one, the blur effect it provides is not enough to simulate anything except very minor difficulty seeing. Another problem is that it requires a lot of steps to download and get installed, and finally you are left with a separate browser app. It would be better to just use bookmarklets or a browser extension.

Today I found CSS filter. By setting the filter style to ‘blur([value]px)’ on document.body we can cause blurriness in a webpage. Counterintuitively, setting blur to 0px still causes some blur, so you have to remove the style in order to go back to pure clarity. Note: for now we have to use -webkit-filter, and this is only supported in WebKit-based browsers.

In any case, I’ve used CSS filter to create a bookmarklet that lets your blur a web page.

Or, just create a bookmark with the following text for the URL:

javascript:(function()%7Bwindow.checkBlurKey%3Dfunction(evt)%7Bwindow.blurLevel%3D(window.blurLevel%7C%7C0)%3Bwindow.blurLevel-%3D((evt.charCode%3D%3D91%26%26window.blurLevel%3E0)%3F1:0)%3Bwindow.blurLevel%2B%3D((evt.charCode%3D%3D93)%3F1:0)%3Bwindow.updateBlur()%3B%7D%3Bwindow.updateBlur%3Dfunction()%7Bvar%20currZoom%3Dwindow.outerWidth/window.innerWidth%3Bvar%20adjustedBlur%3Dwindow.blurLevel/currZoom%3Bdocument.body.style.webkitFilter%3DadjustedBlur%3F%27blur(%27%2BadjustedBlur/2%2B%27px)%27:%27%27%3B%7D%3Bif(window.blurLevel%3D%3D%3Dundefined)%7Bwindow.addEventListener(%27keypress%27,checkBlurKey)%3BsetInterval(updateBlur,500)%3B%7Dwindow.blurLevel%3DparseInt(prompt(%27Blur%20amount%20(0-20)%3F%20%5Cn%27%2B%27(Press%20%5B%20and%20%5D%20in%20page%20to%20change)%27,window.blurLevel))%3Bwindow.updateBlur()%3B%7D)()%3B

When you open it in a WebKit-based browser (Chrome, Safari, etc.), you can set the level of blur for the current page to 0-20. Pressing [ or ] changes the zoom level. The blur level is also divided by the current zoom level — this is so that zooming up makes the content clearer, just as it would for a person with blurry vision.

Improvements I’d like to see:

  • More browser support: For now, this works only in WebKit-based browsers. I would welcome a version that fixes that.
  • More simulations: It should be able to simulate a wide variety of vision issues, such as various kinds of colorblindness, floaters, blocked central vision or blocked peripheral vision. To learn more about different types of visual disabilities, see VisionSimulations.com. I suspect that all these can be simulated via CSS filter, but I haven’t investigated.

Here is the code I used to generate the bookmarklet. It divides the blur level by two — changes smaller than 0.5 don’t seem to do anything).

window.checkBlurKey = function(evt) {
 window.blurLevel = (window.blurLevel || 0);
 window.blurLevel -= ((evt.charCode == 91/*[*/ && window.blurLevel > 0) ? 1: 0);
 window.blurLevel += ((evt.charCode == 93/*]*/) ? 1: 0);
 window.updateBlur();
};
window.updateBlur = function() {
 var currZoom = window.outerWidth / window.innerWidth;
 var adjustedBlur = window.blurLevel / currZoom;
 document.body.style.webkitFilter=
  adjustedBlur? 'blur(' +adjustedBlur / 2 +'px)':'';
};
if (window.blurLevel === undefined) {
 window.addEventListener('keypress', checkBlurKey);
 setInterval(updateBlur, 500); // In case zoom changes
}
window.blurLevel = parseInt(prompt('Blur amount (0-20)? \n' +
 '(Press [ and ] in page to change)', window.blurLevel));
window.updateBlur();

P.S. I could imagine this property could be useful on April 1.

Enjoy!


Why a WAI-ARIA Developer Portal is Important

November 1, 2011

Making dynamic web content accessible is a huge challenge.

WAI-ARIA is the best available solution today. It’s supported in all major browsers and enables almost any dynamic content to be made accessible — that’s great. Accessibility is really important. But man oh man, understanding WAI-ARIA is not easy for developers, who aren’t always born as accessibility experts.

Here are some of the challenges developers face with WAI-ARIA:

  • Implementations are different across browsers and screen readers.
  • It’s hard to find up-to-date documentation and examples.
  • It’s not clear if the markup is correct. Even if it validates with validator.nu, that doesn’t mean it will actually be accessible.
  • Learning what actually works where is near impossible. It requires combing through out-of-date blogs and doing your own testing. There are too many tricky combinations to deal with.

Scary! If I were new to accessibility … let’s not go there. But, the answer is not to give up. The web is dynamic, and accessibility is important. The answer is definitely not  to create a plain version just for users with disabilities. That’s just bad.

Web developers need an ARIA developer portal. And, I’m asking for contributors. The web development community has to solve this information vacuum for itself.

Even requests are useful. Please use the Talk page on the site to provide feedback. Or, join the free-aria mailing list and discuss it there.

Or better yet, jump in and help us organize. We could really use a writer who understands JavaScript. If you don’t know WAI-ARIA then you’re perfect.

And if you have WAI-ARIA expertise, hear my over-the-top plea. Put some of your blog and Twitter energy into a living document! Everything else ages too fast.  Just update one  article or example.  It will pay back many times.

Take a look! And register for an account on MDN :)


The Story of Firefox, for kids

January 5, 2011

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on and off on a children’s book about Firefox. The project started when my kids wanted to understand what I did at work every day.

The story is a sketch about the evolution of Netscape into Firefox and the power of being open. In terms of historical accuracy, a number of things were simplified in order to keep the messages simple.  For better or worse, it’s already 2500 words. That means it’s not for very young children (I’m thinking 2nd graders and older).

I used readily available imagery of a dragon, a phoenix, Firefox, and Mammon (the god of greed, as I’ve learned). In the story, coders are wizards who cast spells. Naturally, there is also a Chief Lizard Wrangler :)  Where possible, I used plot and dialogue, but at times it addresses the reader directly.

The only kid I’ve tested it on so far is my son Oliver (age 8). He loves it, but then he may just be happy that his father spent time to write about a dragon.

If anyone is seriously interested, I’d love to get some help polishing it until it’s good enough to become an actual book.


DotSpots, a cool use of Mozilla technology

September 10, 2009

DotSpots is launching today. A dot is a “distributed object of thought”, which is like a mini blog post containing rich media, which can be connected to any paragraph in the news. Dots can be authored on the dotspots.com website or via the Firefox extension. They can also developed and polished by teams of collaborators. The secret sauce is distribution: DotSpots will distribute dots to similar paragraphs in articles across the web. There is a video and sign up link on today’s TechCrunch article about DotSpots.

The Firefox extension is central to DotSpots — it really provides the best way to view and create dots in the context of other pages.  The web client is also important and shares a lot of the same features. Of course, the website cannot provide the same benefits as the extension on third party web pages.

The technology is something special. All the major pieces, including the Firefox extension, website and backend, were written in Java.  Google Web Toolkit (GWT) actually compiles our client Java code into compressed JavaScript. This is a great development model.  For one thing, strict type checking definitely helps on a project of this size. It’s also great to be able to stay in the same language on the server. The Eclipse debugger helps out quite a bit, stepping through Java in the server as well as both clients. To communicate with Mozilla components, DotSpots CTO Matt Mastracci developed GWT bindings for XPCOM, which we’ll be open sourcing at some point.

For those who know me as a long time Mozilla contributor, be assured I’m putting that knowledge to good use. And, given the transitional state of the news industry today, it’s an exciting time to be working at Web 2.0 news startup. It will be interesting to watch how the industry progresses.


Cross-browser <video>

July 7, 2009

My colleague Matt Mastracci from DotSpots has just released support for the HTML 5 <video>tag across browsers. Legacy browsers are also supported. Please see Matt’s post HTML 5 <video> support for older browsers.

Kudos both to Matt and to our employer DotSpots for supporting web standards.


How to hack your app to make contenteditable work

May 8, 2009

The mission? Build a rich text editor widget using contenteditable. Mark Pilgrim described this contenteditable use case as “alive and well on the web” with the warning that it is still “evolving”. Nevertheless, because of various problems we had using an <iframe> our group decided to switch from using designMode to contenteditable.

Note: this article has been updated several times to add up-to-date information as it becomes available. Please add your tips and tricks or any corrections as a comment.

Most of the issues are in the Mozilla editor implementation. IE and WebKit seem to work fine.

Mark’s document is an excellent resource, but now it’s time for a reality check. Here are some problems I had to work around in Firefox 3.5 beta 4:

  1. Large caret,  tiny caret, no caret, or two carets on initial focus.
    Workaround: ensure the magic sequence of <p><br/></p> as end-of-document content. Watch everything that happens to make sure it’s never changed, removed or even selected. (Bonus: this is also the fix for several other items in this issues list). Don’t let the caret go after it. If selection ends up extending past it, then just use window.selection.extend to move just before the caret. If the selection had been “collapsed” (just a caret), then set the caret before it (for example set the start before andthen  use window.selection.collapseToEnd to make the selection match).
  2. Many execCommand commands, such as bold, do not work after select all, or may have issues when the caret is at the end of content.
 Workaround: the fix for item #1 above also addresses this.
  3. The “indent” and “outdent” execCommand will actually indent the entire contenteditable region! 
Workaround: the fix for item #1 above also addresses this.
  4. Caret and selection are not restored when you tab or click out of the contenteditable area and later tab back in.
    Workaround: store selection onblur and onmouseout, and restore onfocus. Unfortunately onblur was not enough, because by the time the user has clicked outside of the editable area, the selection has already been forgotten.
  5. Double clicking on any HTML Form input in the same document as a contenteditable no longer selects a word.
    Workaround: you have to cleverly set contenteditable=”false” on all area in the document onmousedown in the inputs, and then set them back to “true” as soon as possible.
  6. You can paste the editor back into itself etc. This is arguably a feature, not a bug, since contenteditable could be used to develop web authoring tools. However, it’s something to be aware of.
    Workaround: create styles for all children in contenteditable for overflow: hidden !important. You’ll need to think about what styles to override. Remember that users can drag or paste in comment from anywhere.
  7. Can’t select text and do operations such as delete if the text includes the beginning or end of the content.
    Workaround: make sure the root editor element is a <div>. Style it how you want (e.g. display: inline), but if it’s a <span> at least, this bug will occur.

My team is still discovering some issues, but they are harder to reproduce. Sometimes the editor becomes unfocusable and it becomes impossible to do further editing. I’m not sure what gets it into this state.

There are over 70 filed contenteditable bugs, and when I am done filing there will be more. The fact that most of these bugs were not yet filed by anyone else yet seems to indicate that contenteditable just isn’t being used much out there. I can see why, and unless the issues get cleaned up, it will stay that way.

The low quality of contenteditable support is unacceptable, especially for something that shipped in a previous version of Firefox. There was plenty of time between Firefox 3 and 3.5, to circle back, gather what was learned, and fix the most important bugs. Yet, I could only find 7 behavior-related contenteditable bugs fixed since June, 2008. That means it’s mostly being allowed to exist as it is.

I would like to make an observation, after 8 years working on the Mozilla code base, and now as a developer of web applications. Please don’t read on if you are allergic to sports analogies, or if you just want to hear how great Mozilla technology is. Quality would be higher if there were one or two fewer  initiatives for the Next Great Leap, and more concentration on just fixing the old boring bugs. There are obviously a lot of big world-changing initiatives going on at Mozilla, and there should be. However, as a community we should be realistic that three point shots are awesome when they go in, but they are easy to miss. Lots of simple plays, like rebounds and layups, are still necessary. Sometimes I think that fundamental bug fixing gets lost in the drive to make news headlines. Honestly, you don’t have to go that far out on the edge to find problems. I don’t believe this is an engineering issue. I think it’s actually Mozilla’s leadership not wanting to pour resources into what seems like an endless problem where great results don’t provide immediate mind-share benefits. However, as we all know, this stuff is super complicated, and in order for the web to move forward things have to “just work”. Either Mozilla has to fix the behavioral bugs or every web developer who uses the feature has to track down what the problems are and try to find a hack for it.

P.S.  FWIW, other than selection memory, WebKit has worked perfectly so far.  That said, Mobile WebKit for the iPhone has a major issue. It doesn’t actually support contenteditable at all. Worse, it reports that it does — node.contentEditable and node.isContentEditable are true for a node with the attribute contenteditable=”true”, yet . So if you want a fallback, you have to sniff for the user agent rather than use the technique of capability detection, which is better because you never know which future version will support contenteditable.


Frank Hecker, Catalyst for the Web

February 19, 2009

It’s time to take a moment to thank and congratulate Frank Hecker, winner of the 2009 Catalyst Award, for his work to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

The Catalyst award page describes Frank perfectly:

Catalysts are elements or chemicals that can cause or accelerate reactions but do not, themselves, get used up. They are, in this case, people who make things happen by their presence and by what they do. They don’t necessarily do everything themselves, but they bring out and enable the best in the rest of us. They connect the rest of us, and facilitate our interactions so that we all can do great things. They connect us, and facilitate us so that we all can do great things.

Not only has Frank done a lot for accessibility, he’s behind a lot of the work on the open web, which we all enjoy and appreciate. Frank has helped many individuals live up to their true potential. Please see the 2009 Catalyst Award announcement page for more details on what Frank enabled, and how he did it. This award was an easy choice.

Anything is possible if you don’t care who takes the credit. Thanks again Frank, not only for teaching us that, but for all you’ve done for this community. We could use a few more people like you.


IBM, Open Accessibility and Change

January 23, 2009

Richard Schwerdtfeger, my mentor and technical lead at IBM, explains why IBM let go of myself and Pete Brunet, and what it says about IBM strategy in open accessibility going forward. Although it was done suddenly, it makes a certain amount of business sense.

To summarize what I’m reading and thinking: IBM realized that our efforts in driving WAI-ARIA and IAccessible2 forward were a success.Things are now at a point where IBM can use these technologies in products without devoting full time employees to drive them. IBM believes browser manufacturers must carry forth any further efforts necessary to make web applications accessible.

What still remains to be done? There is more work in W3C to finalize the WAI-ARIA 1.0 standard, and Rich will still be chairing that effort. There is more work to support WAI-ARIA within various JavaScript toolkits and assistive technologies such as screen readers. However, the biggest missing piece in the infrastructure now are solid, consistent, support across all browsers. Firefox support for WAI-ARIA is strong, although some advanced uses such as complex grids with expandable parts will take time to sort out. In addition, consistent support across other browsers will be elusive for some time. Hint: IE 8 betas need work, but are easily beating WebKit and Opera.

But what’s really needed now is WAI-ARIA support in popular web applications. Killer WAI-ARIA applications will drive the need for better browser support, by putting meaning behind the efforts. One would think that a killer consumer application using Dojo’s Dijit or native WAI-ARIA support would emerge, but I haven’t seen one yet (please correct me if I’m wrong). You will still hear this note of resistance when discussing the need for WAI-ARIA with developers of some browser engines. WAI-ARIA bugs in ATs and browsers are simply more likely to get fixed if real users must switch browsers in order to access their web mail, calendar or web-based office application.

The solid Firefox and AT support, and upcoming IE support, are reason enough for developers to rally behind WAI-ARIA. Web application developers, please, implement WAI-ARIA and push browser manufacturers to fix their bugs. Finally, JavaScript front-end developers — please help contribute WAI-ARIA questions and documentation to the free-aria mailing list and codetalks.org wiki.

So in summary, IBM is right. They really did a lot for the community in developing WAI-ARIA and IAccessible2. A major aspect of this was their support for Pete Brunet and myself. We did a great job and IBM will continue to use the results for accessibility in their products. Now, the community will bring these technologies to the next level — mostly, by embracing them.

I want to end by lauding the work Pete did with IAccessible2. Without IAccessible2, advanced web application accessibility would not be available on Windows. IAccessible2 also allows any desktop application to support full accessibility. Like myself, Pete is obviously considering opportunities — he is brunet at us.ibm.com. And hey Pete … open some champagne. Both Rich’s post and our body of work show the facts. We were profoundly successful.


Goodbye IBM

January 21, 2009

This came as shock to me today, but I was just laid off from IBM. It was not a result of performance. They tell me it was because ARIA and working with external browser vendors is no longer a priority. There is still the chance to find work for another group in IBM, and I will probably be looking into that.

I have enjoyed working there, especially on Web 2.0 accessibility and Mozilla.

But, perhaps this will be the opening of new opportunities. I’m always optimistic.

Update: Some more thoughts … I’ve never been laid off before. In fact, everyone I ever worked for was more than pleased with my output. I know that people who understood my work in IBM really appreciated it. We certainly rocked the accessibility world!

I’m not too worried right now, and I’m very open to hearing about opportunities. Mostly, I just like doing things that benefit society. It doesn’t have to be accessibility, and probably doesn’t even have to be software. Realistically, it may be difficult to be given a great opportunity to move and shake outside of software, but you never know. I do like the kind of projects that Benetech gets going. I’m fascinated in potential in Obama’s plans for using technology to better utilize the public in decision-making. I’ve had some cool ideas around that in the past, which in fact can be more general and could be quite fun to work on.

And, don’t be too surprised if I stay in accessibility or even if I find some new opportunity to work on accessibility within Big Blue itself.

If you have a challenging opportunity to run by me, please send a note to aaron at moonset.net.


Podcast on ARIA, JAWS, Firefox and Chatzilla

January 18, 2009

JAWS screen reader manufacturer Freedom Scientific has published their January podcast. In it, Glen Gordon describes the design of WAI-ARIA and how it improves accessibility in Web 2.0 applications.

This is followed by a number of ARIA demonstrations by Jonathan Mosen. Jonathan first shows ARIA-enabled websites with JAWS 10 + Firefox 3.04. He then demonstrates JAWS with Chatzilla, an accessible IRC client. Chatzilla is based on Mozilla’s rendering engine, utilizing XUL for the user interface, HTML for the chat log, and ARIA to enhance accessibility.  To quote Jonathan, “and thanks to all the ARIA they have enabled now in that window, chat works seamlessly with JAWS — very impressive”.


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