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Apples new iPod shuffle MP3 player is user-friendly, even for the visually impaired

17 February, 2005 by Peter Verhoeven

By Ridzwan A. Rahim

Apples new iPod shuffle MP3 player is user-friendly, even for the visually impaired. RIDZWAN A. RAHIM finds out why. WHEN Apple unveiled its new iPod shuffle MP3 player, it sparked a controversy. The reason: the player comes without a display. But what is seen as a design flaw by detractors may just win Apple a new set of fans from a group often wrongly perceived as technologically backward, the visually impaired.

When first introduced to the iPod shuffle, visually impaired Moses Choo Siew Cheong joked: “Now everybody can shuffle like the blind too!”

Choo is the assistant executive director of the National Council for the Blind Malaysia. His job includes making decisions on technology matters for the organisation.

The iPod shuffle that was put in his hands is an all-white electronic device about the size of a pack of gum. It more resembles a USB thumb drive than an MP3 player.

The front of the unit is dominated by a large circular button that allows the user to perform five functions — play/pause, volume up, volume down, next track and previous track.

The back of the unit features a slider that enables the user to toggle between off, shuffle and play songs in order.

With a storage capacity of 512 megabytes, the iPod shuffle allows a user to fit about 120 songs or eight hours of music by hooking it up to a computer’s USB port.

The iPod shuffle has no display to indicate what song is playing. Instead, Apple has designed it to rely heavily on a function commonly used by iPod users called “shuffle”.

The idea is that when you have hundreds of songs in such a tiny device, you don’t want to go through the torture of selecting a song to listen to, you just want to let the iPod do it for you in random order, or shuffle. Don’t like a chosen track? Just skip to the next one.

It is highly unlikely that when Apple’s engineers designed the iPod shuffle they had the visually impaired in mind. But by employing such a minimalistic approach to user interface, the engineers have unwittingly enabled even a person who is visually impaired such as Choo to use it too.

Choo proved to be a quick learner. I only needed to guide him once on how to operate the player. In fact, he even discovered a function I did not even know was there.

“If you press and hold next or previous, you can scroll through a track. We call this function ‘queue and review’. It’s good for the blind as it allows us to listen to long audio files such as a radio programme,” he said, adding that he regularly visited sites such as bbc.com, acbradio.com and audio-read.com.au to download radio programmes in MP3 format.

He rattled off another tip, saying that 512MB is enough for 25 hours of MP3 files, provided they are encoded at 64 kilobits per second (Kbps). The figure quoted by Apple is for the company’s 128Kbps AAC music format.

Listening to Choo spew technical jargon may amaze some people but the fact is, the 48-year-old is no newbie when it comes to gadgets. He has been using the PC since the days of DOS.

“One common misconception people have about the blind is that we need special equipment to do our job. We don’t. For the most part, we are comfortable with a PC that looks a lot like what the sighted are using,” he said.

“If you think about it, a lot of things people do don’t require seeing. When you drive, you don’t look at the gear knob or the pedal. When you type, you don’t have to look at the keyboard.”

But how do they “see” what is on the computer’s screen? To help them find their way around Windows, Choo said, the visually impaired relied on a screen reader programme called Jaws which reads out the text on the screen.

This works well most of the time. Still, occasionally, things just get too difficult and that’s when it helps to have sighted friends around.

So, of course Choo likes it that the iPod shuffle lacks a screen. “We are also human beings. We like music. We have mastered the skills to rip and mix our favourite tunes and burn them to CDs.”

So what would make MP3 players of even greater benefit to the visually impaired?

“One feature I would really like to see in the iPod is a built-in speech engine to read text files, in addition to playing MP3. This is something like an audio book and will greatly help us in our learning,” said Choo.

Price is another crucial factor and he appreciates it that the current crop of MP3 players are getting cheaper. The iPod shuffle, for example, is priced at RM499.

It compares favourably against the Pulse Data BrailleNote portable computer that he’s using, which reads his text files and plays his MP3 at a cost of RM15,000!

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