Monthly Archives: September 2009

Access Tools Menu for a Mac USB Pen Drive?

With the Windows version of the Access Tools menu undergoing tests before it is released, time has been spent looking at whether a Mac version of the system should be developed.

An important factor in determining whether this should be undertaken is what portable applications are available for the Mac. Freesmug provides a selection of common applications in portable form, although there are not really any portable accessibility tools available. This is not a huge problem, as Mac OS X has accessibility features built in, so these would be available on any Mac without the need for a portable version. The range of portable applications is also much smaller than for Windows.  This would limit the added benefit that a pendrive could provide.

A small test was undertaken to investigate what kind of menu systems could be used on the Mac. Three portable Mac applications (Portable VLC, Portable Firefox and Portable Sunbird) were downloaded and placed onto a blank USB drive. It was immediately clear that  the applications were a lot simpler than their Windows alternatives, with only a couple of extra files in each folder, along with the application itself. Using the Cover Flow view in Finder, there is a visual way to scroll through the folders (which are decorated with the application’s icon), open the folder, and then easily locate the application. The other views in Finder all provide a similar organisation, although Cover Flow was visually the most pleasing.

To simplify this further, a Smart Folder can be used. A Smart Folder can be used to organise common files, without worrying about their location. This means that a Smart Folder could be created that would contain just the application files for all portable applications available. By creating a new Smart Folder using Finder, the word “Portable” was used as the search term. This located everything on the machine (and connected devices) with “Portable” in its name, which found the applications on the pendrive, but also a considerable number of other files. For this reason, the search was then limited by ‘Kind’ to search for particular types of files. Selecting the ‘Kind’ as Applications meant it would now only show Applications that had “Portable” in the name. This limited the results to just our portable applications.

Creating the Smart Folder to search for all Applications with "Portable" in their name

Creating the Smart Folder to search for all Applications with "Portable" in their name

By selecting ‘Save’, it was now possible to place this Smart Folder onto the pendrive, and take it from machine to machine, where it would always show shortcuts to the portable applications, without the rest of their associated files. The folder was named ‘Menu’, as it provides similar functionality. The user can open this folder, and scroll through the available applications just as a user would scroll through the application list on the Windows pen drive version. Cover Flow and the other view modes are still available for this, which provides an attractive visual interface.

The contents of the pendrive - the Menu smart folder, and the three application folders

The contents of the pendrive - the Menu smart folder, and the three application folders

The Mac pendrive Menu folder displaying as icons. Only the applications themselves are shown.

The Mac pendrive Menu folder displaying as icons. Only the applications themselves are shown.

Because these features are built into Mac OS X, along with the lack of portable accessibility tools and small selection of portable applications in general, it has been agreed that producing a Mac version of the Access Tools menu would not be worthwhile.

Summer Showcase '09

Friday saw the Learning Societies Lab’s annual Summer Showcase. In the Access Group, we decided to take this opportunity to show off all our projects. Chris Phethean, Seb Skuse and Russell Newman were speaking. E.A. was in Birmingham, so couldn’t make it.

Check out our presentation for all the details. Here is a PDF, 3MB:
Access Group 2009 Summer Showcase

Questions after each section highlighted some interesting possibilities for future development. Specifically:

  • Web2Access Validation Toolkit: Can part of the work of checking a site be performed by our server automatically, thus removing the need for a human to do it?
  • StudyBar Text-to-Speech: Could the server cache common sentences and/or websites? e.g. the BBC News site is likely to be a common request, so can we render it once then cache it?
  • Access Menu: Development of a package download service would allow users to add new programs to their pen drives and keep existing ones up to date.

Access Tools Menu Beta Testing

After making some changes to the layout and interface of the Access Tools menu, it has now been distributed for beta testing. The new design makes the menu much more stable and prevents some of the early problems that were occurring when resizing the text.

Additional features have been added such as the ability to change the titles of applications and documents with the use of the right hand mouse button once the pointer is over the individual item and also to resize dialog boxes and increase text sizes, change colours etc  with keyboard commands.  The help file has the short cut key commands and software applications can be added to the menu via the folders found on the pen drive.

The underlying code has remained relatively constant, and has so far been able to create the application list in the menu with very few problems. This stability has allowed a longer period of time to be spent on refining the interface and improving the accessibility features of the application, which initial tests have shown to work well.

The possibility of a Mac alternative will be investigated in the next few days, along with an in depth look at what portable accessibility tools are available for the Mac.

In the meantime, development will continue on the Windows version in response to any issues that are raised during the beta period, to ensure that the final version provides the best possible experience to all users.

Access Tools Menu showing the list of Accessibility Tools and Applications that are installed.

Access Tools Menu showing the list of Accessibility Tools and Applications that are on this USB drive.

StudyBar update

The core of StudyBar has been successfully implemented into all of the major browsers in use today – Firefox, Internet Explorer (6+), Google Chrome, Safari (Snow Leopard requires Safari to be run in 32-bit mode to use StudyBar), and Opera across the Mac and Windows platforms where applicable.


StudyBar allows users to perform tasks on content displayed in the current webpage, such as inline editing of page styles, spellchecking of text input, dictionary search, text to speech, and much more without need for popups.



At this stage of development the base loading functionality is working in all browsers, as well as a few of the more basic functions. The Spellchecker framework now works in all browsers, so simply needs tuning so that it works more effectively. Efforts are now concentrated on getting Text to Speech linked up and working in FireFox as well as some of the other browsers, referencing and dictionary working and tuning the text and colour manipulation controls.

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