Early next year, Microsoft will release the Windows 10 Creators Update, a major 'Service Pack'-style collection of new features and improvements, following on from the Anniversary Update that was released this summer. Microsoft has already highlighted some of the changes to the communications experience and new gaming features that will arrive with that update. Other enhancements will include a new UI for sharing content, along with integrated virtual reality support through the Windows Holographic shell.
Today, Microsoft announced details of how it will improve accessibility features in Windows 10, in an effort to ensure that the OS can be comfortably used by as wide a range of users as possible.
Microsoft said today that it has established "three companywide guiding principles" for all of its future product development:
- Transparency, to commit to sharing our plans to ensure that Microsoft’s products are accessible.
- Accountability, for prioritizing inclusive design and accessibility in the creation of our products and services.
- Inclusivity, in order to keep all of our customers and their abilities top of mind.
In pursuit of those goals, the company will be making numerous additions and improvements to Windows 10 with the Creators Update. One of the most significant new additions will be support for braille in the Windows 10 Narrator feature. The Creators Update will include beta support for braille input and output through specialized braille displays "from over 35 manufacturers, using more than 40 languages and multiple braille variants, including grade 2 contracted braille."
It's also adding the ability to use a controller to handle Narrator interactions on Xbox One consoles, including pitch and speed adjustments for the Narrator voice.
Other highlights include:
- Unassisted installation: Users will soon be able to install the Windows 10 Creators Update using Narrator throughout the installation process, including from within Windows RE/PE for setup & troubleshooting.
- New way to launch Narrator: We have changed the quick keys used to launch Narrator to address feedback from many Windows 10 users. Users can now launch Narrator by clicking CTRL + WIN + ENTER. WIN + ENTER no longer launches Narrator. Users can still launch Narrator from Cortana or from the Settings Window.
- New text to speech voices and capabilities: We are adding more than 10 new voices. In addition, there will be Narrator support for multilingual reading, so that Narrator seamlessly switches between languages when you have the corresponding voices installed.
- Improved audio experiences: We implemented dynamic ducking, so Narrator will only reduce the volume of other applications like Groove or Pandora when it is speaking. The handshake between Narrator and Cortana is also improved, so Cortana won’t transcribe what Narrator (or other screen readers) is speaking.
- More general reliability and usability improvements: We added features to make it easier to understand the context of a control with which you are interacting and to make it possible to discover information about objects like the background color of a table cell. Narrator will remember and maintain your mode, e.g. scan mode, across applications. Narrator cursor positioning improvements include stopping and starting where you expect when reading in scan mode and when reading by line, paragraph and in continuous reading.
- Easier web browsing with Edge: Narrator responsiveness is improved with Edge and several new features have been added, including the ability to jump directly to a form element like a check box, text field or button, and the ability to navigate by heading level.
Some of these features are already built into Insider Preview builds of the Creators Update, but others will be coming in early 2017, before the update eventually begins rolling out a few months into the year.
Microsoft also detailed some of the accessibility improvements that will be coming to Office 365 early next year, promising "to empower [users] to consume, create and collaborate on content independently, efficiently and confidently." These features include:
- Built-in controls for authoring accessible content: We will be introducing more accessible templates to help you get started, making it easy to insert alternative text descriptions for images and meaningful display names for hyperlinks as well as making the accessibility checker available in more Office applications. Watch this short accessible authoring demonstration to learn more about these capabilities.
- Built-in controls for personalizing reading experiences: Inspired by the profound impact the introduction of Learning Tools for OneNote has had in classrooms and are making these tools to promote concentration and comprehension available in more Office applications. Settings to read text aloud with simultaneous highlighting, increase text spacing and break words into syllables are already rolling out in Word for PCs to Office Insider and First Release program members and are coming next to Word Online and OneNote Online. Watch this short Learning Tools demonstration to learn more about these capabilities.
- Support for creating professional, polished content with assistive technologies: Making it easy to use new cloud-powered, intelligent services in Office applications with assistive technologies such as screen readers and alternative keyboards. Services such as Designer in PowerPoint, Researcher and Editor in Word can reduce the effort you spend on tasks such as formatting, citing and proofing your work and let you focus on refining the ideas you’d like to communicate.
Microsoft's announcements today follow a commitment from its CEO, Satya Nadella, a year ago to put accessibility and assistive technologies at the heart of everything that the company does. He said:
As I think about living our mission, top of mind for me heading into 2016 is how we must make Microsoft products accessible to the more than 1 billion people globally of all abilities. This is a shared goal. Universal design is central to how we realize our mission and will make all our products better. Along with our Senior Leadership Team, I will continue to devote my time and passion to this priority.
Microsoft's Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the company's Chief Accessibility Officer, said today that it's "thrilled to see the impact that technology is having on our customers", and that the firm is focused on keeping up that momentum in the year ahead.