A VoiceOver User’s Guide to Apple’s “3D Touch” Feature on the New iPhone 6s and 6s Plus: Scott Davert, AppleVis Editorial Team

Scott Davert head shot

Guest blogger Scott Davert, M.A., VRT, is an AppleVis Editorial Team Member and the Coordinator of the New York Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, administered by the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.

The Program provides no-cost communication and technology training to persons with significant combined vision and hearing loss who meet federal income guidelines. Equipment can include smartphones, tablets, computers, screen readers, braille readers, and adaptive software.

Most recently, Scott reviewed Apple’s new iOS 9 release, with an emphasis on accessibility features for users who are blind and deaf-blind. iOS is Apple’s mobile operating system, or OS. Originally developed for the iPhone, it has since been extended to support other Apple devices, such as the iPod touch and iPad. In June 2010, Apple rebranded the iPhone OS as simply iOS.

This week, Scott reviews Apple’s 3D Touch, a new touch-sensitive display, accessible by VoiceOver users, that adds distinct levels of touch interaction to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. VoiceOver is a free gesture-based screen reader, available on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. It is a built-in component of Apple’s suite of accessibility features for users who are blind, visually impaired, or have low vision.

What is 3D Touch, Anyway?

3D Touch is arguably one of the biggest features of the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus models. Before we get in to specifics about how it works with VoiceOver, I thought it would be helpful to go directly to Apple’s 3D Touch webpage to get an overview of exactly what 3D Touch is:

iPhone 6s introduces an entirely new way to interact with your phone. For the first time, iPhone senses how much pressure you apply to the display. In addition to familiar Multi Touch gestures like Tap, Swipe, and Pinch, 3D Touch introduces Peek and Pop. This brings a new dimension of functionality to the iPhone experience. And when you use 3D Touch, your iPhone responds with subtle taps. So not only will you see what a press can do — you’ll feel it.

Continuing in what has now become conventional fashion for Apple, 3D Touch is usable for VoiceOver users. There are actually two ways to utilize both the “Force Touch” and the “Peek and Pop” features.

What is Force Touch?

The Force Touch option allows you to launch context menus for apps that support the feature. It’s very similar to what happens when you press the Applications key on Windows or VO-Shift-M on a Mac. You are given specific menu options for the app or program your screen reader has focus set to. For visual users, it’s equivalent to right-clicking.

Just like when you use this keyboard command on other platforms, you’re not launched into the program, but are presented with a list of actions you can choose from. If you activate any of these options, in this case by double tapping on the one you desire, you will be put in that app or program with the action you chose already carried out.

To the best of my knowledge, Force Touch is only available on the Home Screen. Also, only apps for which the developer has chosen to utilize this feature will support a Force Touch or the Peek and Pop feature.

Does Force Touch Change any of the Gestures I Already Know?

The short answer is no. If you are someone who is heavy-handed with your touchscreen, however, you can adjust the sensitivity of 3D Touch gestures by going to Settings > Accessibility > 3D Touch, and either turning it off or setting the sensitivity level to “firm.”

On the other hand, if you’re finding that you need to press too hard or are otherwise having trouble activating 3D Touch, you can adjust the setting to “light.”

If you’re not sure which setting will work best for you, on that same 3D Touch settings screen, you will also find a button to test the sensitivity level to see if it fits with your comfort level.

Using Force Touch with VoiceOver

There are several different ways you can use Force Touch:

  • One way is to slide your finger around the touchscreen until you find the app you would like to perform a Force Touch action on. Once you find that app, leave your finger on it and press firmly on the touchscreen. The Haptic Engine will click one time to alert you that you have launched a context menu; if no context menu is available, you will feel two clicks and will remain on your Home Screen with that app still in focus.
  • If you get the single click, most times, you will be at the end of the menu that you just launched; flick left from the end of the menu to find out what actions are available. For example, in Tweetings (a Twitter client), you can send a Direct Message, or send a new tweet. In the context menu, double-tapping will launch Tweetings and place you in the edit field to type either a Direct Message or tweet depending on which option you chose.
  • Force Touch in the Phone application gives you the menu options of creating a new contact, or contacting your favorites. Again, double-tapping the selected action will give the phone the green light to fulfill your request.

I’m a Flicker, Not a Poker. What about Me?

You’re in luck as well! If you tend to flick around the screen, this is also fine, but you will need to use a different gesture to enjoy Force Touch:

  • First, flick to the app you wish to perform the Force Touch on, and then double-tap and press down. You will then be presented with the same context menu you get when using the first method I described. Bluetooth keyboard users can also press VO-Shift-F to perform a Force Touch, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a braille keyboard equivalent at this time.
  • Again, to activate an item in the menu, double-tap it. If you are struggling to use Force Touch and keep entering Screen Edit Mode by accident, you can adjust the sensitivity required to activate this feature. Head on over to Settings > Accessibility > 3D Touch, and set the sensitivity level to “firm” or turn 3D Touch off entirely.

Peek and Pop

Peek and Pop allows you to “peek” at an item, and then dismiss it just as quickly. You can also “pop” in to it, which is the fancy way of saying that you are opening it as you always have. Here’s an example:

  • Let’s say you’re in the Mail application in a list of messages. You can, of course, double-tap to open the message, or you can touch and then press which will then give you the content of the message itself.
  • The Haptic Engine confirms you’ve activated this feature with a single tap you can feel on your finger, just like with Force Touch.
  • You can move around the message while still holding down your finger by moving your finger downward.
  • Once you lift your finger, you are returned to the Inbox.

There are also actions available with the Peek function, which you can activate by sliding your finger to the right. VoiceOver will say, “Preview, actions available.” Once this happens, you will have a list of rotor actions to choose from. Double-tap the one you want, and it magically does as requested.

Where you can “Peek,” you can also “Pop.” To “pop,” while still holding down your finger, press a bit harder. The Haptic Engine in the phone will confirm that you have now “popped” into the message. Another way to do this is to slide your finger into the “preview” part of the screen, and then double-tap.

Can I Flick and Peek Too?

Yes you can. Continuing with the Mail example, find the message you wish to Peek into. Double-tap and push on this message, and you will feel the Haptic Engine click under your finger, notifying you that you are now checking out the selected message.

While not everything in this screen can be flicked to, you can find the message on the left and center of the screen and use your standard VoiceOver gestures to read the message. To get to the “preview” area of the screen, tap the right side of your screen. You will then find the actions rotor available, as described above.

For more information, you can contact Scott at scott.davert@hknc.org.

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