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Google’s I/O developers conference often sets the company’s tone for the rest of the year. This manifests in multiple ways. The obvious one is previews of product and feature launches that roll out later. The other way is themes that product and feature launches are built around. One such theme at I/O 2019 was “designing for accessibility first.” And this week on World Sight Day, five months after I/O, Google Maps got its prescription.

Google Maps now offers detailed voice guidance and new types of verbal announcements for walking trips. The feature proactively tells you that you’re on the correct route, the distance until your next turn, and the direction you’re walking in. You receive warnings to cross with added caution at large intersections, and if you stray from your route, a spoken notification informs you that you’re being rerouted. Detailed voice guidance for walking navigation is available in Google Maps for Android and iOS, in English (United States) and Japanese.

(I’d wager this accessibility feature wasn’t ready to be shown off in time for I/O 2019. The only Google Maps news was AR navigation, but that was shown off a year ago, and it’s only for Pixel users.)

Built for accessibility first


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Google made a big deal about accessibility at this year’s I/O, showing off multiple projects that use AI to help people with disabilities. The “accessibility first” approach was particularly obvious with Live Caption, which provides real-time continuous speech transcription on your phone. Coming next week to select phones running Android 10, it can caption any media, including songs, audio recordings, podcasts, phone calls, video calls, and so on.

Live Caption can clearly make a world of difference to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It also has broader implications for anyone who wants to stay quiet while consuming content that requires sound.

The Google Maps voice guidance addition takes the same approach. “This feature is the first in Google Maps to be built from the ground up by, and for, people with vision impairments,” Google’s announcement reads. The post’s two headers drive the “accessibility first” point home:

  1. Detailed voice guidance in Google Maps helps people with visual impairments
  2. Building a more helpful Google Maps for everyone

Built for everyone

If you can’t already tell, I’m a big fan of this “accessibility first” mantra. Why shouldn’t accessibility features help everyone? After all, disabilities are rarely straightforward. Like almost everything to do with humanity, they fall on a spectrum.

Take hearing. I may not be deaf, nor would I consider myself hard of hearing (the girlfriend would say otherwise). But I certainly take advantage of closed captioning when it’s available. If Live Caption works as advertised, anyone should be able to consume any content with audio without relying on headphones or the phone’s speakers.

Then there’s vision. I may not be blind, nor would I be classified as having a visual impairment. But I certainly need my glasses when navigating the world. If Google Maps does its job, even those with 20/20 vision can go for a walk using detailed voice guidance. Regardless of how your eyes function, technology should let you get where you need to go. Plus, no matter where you land on the visual spectrum, less screen time can’t hurt.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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