Christian Heilmann

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Google IO – A tale of two Googles

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Google IO main stage with audience

Disclaimer: The following are my personal views and experiences at this year’s Google IO. They are not representative of my employer. Should you want to quote me, please do so as Chris Heilmann, developer.

TL;DR: Is Google IO worth the $900? Yes, if you’re up for networking, getting information from experts and enjoy social gatherings. No, if you expect to be able to see talks. You’re better off watching them from home. The live streaming and recordings are excellent.

Google IO this year left me confused and disappointed. I found a massive gap between the official messaging and the tech on display. I’m underwhelmed with the keynote and the media outreach. The much more interesting work in the breakout sessions, talks and demos excited me. It seems to me that what Google wants to promote and the media to pick up is different to what its engineers showed. That’s OK, but it feels like sales stepping on a developer conference turf.

I enjoyed the messaging of the developer outreach and product owner team in the talks and demos. At times I was wondering if I was at a Google or a Mozilla event. The web and its technologies were front and centre. And there was a total lack of “our product $X leads the way” vibes.

Kudos to everyone involved. The messaging about progressive Web Apps, AMP and even the new Android Instant Apps was honest. It points to a drive in Google to return to the web for good.

Illuminated dinosaur at the after party

The vibe of the event changed a lot since moving out of Moscone Center in San Francisco. Running it on Google’s homestead in Mountain View made the whole show feel more like a music festival than a tech event. It must have been fun for the presenters to stand on the same stage they went to see bands at.

Having smaller tents for the different product and technology groups was great. It invited much more communication than booths. I saw a lot of neat demos. Having experts at hand to talk with about technologies I wanted to learn about was great.


Feet in the sun watching a talk at the Amphitheatre

Here are the good and bad things about the organisation:

  • Good: traffic control wasn’t as much of a nightmare I expected. I got there two hours in advance as I anticipated traffic jams, but it wasn’t bad at all. Shuttles and bike sheds helped getting people there.
  • Good: there was no queue at badge pickup. Why I had to have my picture taken and a – somehow sticky – plastic badge printed was a bit beyond me, though. It seems wasteful.
  • Good: the food and beverages were plentiful and applicable. With a group this big it is hard to deliver safe to eat and enjoyable food. The sandwiches, apples and crisps did the trick. The food at the social events was comfort food/fast food, but let’s face it – you’re not at a food fair. I loved that all the packaging was paper and cardboard and there was not too much excess waste in the form of plastics. We also got a reusable water bottle you could re-fill at water dispensers like you have in offices. Given the weather, this was much needed. Coffee and tea was also available throughout the day. We were well fed and watered. I’m no Vegan, and I heard a few complaints about a lack of options, but that may have been personal experiences.
  • Good: the toilets were amazing. Clean, with running water and plenty of paper, mirrors, free sunscreen and no queues. Not what I expected from a music festival surrounding.
  • Great: as it was scorching hot on the first day the welcome pack you got with your badge had a bandana to cover your head, two sachets of sun screen, a reusable water bottle and sunglasses. As a ginger: THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. The helpers even gave me a full tube of sunscreen on re-entry the second day, taking pity on my red skin.
  • Bad: the one thing that was exactly the same as in Moscone was the abysmal crowd control. Except for the huge stage tent number two (called HYDRA - I am on to you, people) all others were far too small. It was not uncommon to stand for an hour in a queue for the talk you wanted to see just to be refused entry as it was full up. Queuing up in the scorching sun isn’t fun for anyone and impossible for me. Hence I missed all but two talks I wanted to see.
  • Good: if you were lucky enough to see a talk, the AV quality was great. The screens were big and readable, all the talks were live transcribed and the presenters audible.

The bad parts

Apart from the terrible crowd control, two things let me down the most. The keynote and a total lack of hardware giveaway – something that might actually be related.

Don’t get me wrong, I found the showering of attendees with hardware excessive at the first few IOs. But announcing something like a massive move into VR with Daydream and Tango without giving developers something to test it on is assuming a lot. Nine hundred dollars plus flying to the US and spending a lot of money on accommodation is a lot for many attendees. Getting something amazing to bring back would be a nice “Hey, thanks”.

There was no announcement at the keynote about anything physical except for some vague “this will be soon available” products. This might be the reason.

My personal translation of the keynote is the following:

We are Google, we lead in machine learning, cloud technology and data insights. Here are a few products that may soon come out that play catch-up with our competition. We advocate diversity and try to make people understand that the world is bigger than the Silicon Valley. That’s why we solve issues that aren’t a problem but annoyances for the rich. All the things we’re showing here are solving issues of people who live in huge houses, have awesome cars and suffer from the terrible ordeal of having to answer text messages using their own writing skills. Wouldn’t it be better if a computer did that for you? Why go and wake up your children with a kiss using the time you won by becoming more effective with our products when you can tell Google to do that for you? Without the kiss that is – for now.

As I put it during the event:

I actually feel poor looking at the #io16 keynote. We have lots of global problems technology can help with. This is pure consumerism.

I stand by this. Hardly anything in the keynote excited me as a developer. Or even as a well-off professional who lives in a city where public transport is a given. The announcement of Instant Apps, the Firebase bits and the new features of Android Studio are exciting. But it all got lost in an avalanche of “Look what’s coming soon!” product announcements without the developer angle. We want to look under the hood. We want to add to the experience and we want to understand how things work. This is how developer events work. Google Home has some awesome features. Where are the APIs for that?

As far as I understand it, there was a glitch in the presentation. But the part where a developer in Turkey used his skills to help the Syrian refugee crisis was borderline insulting. There was no information what the app did, who benefited from it and what it ran on. No information how the data got in and how the data was going to the people who help the refugees. The same goes for using machine learning to help with the issue of blindness. Both were teasers without any meat and felt like “Well, we’re also doing good, so here you go”.

Let me make this clear: I am not criticising the work of any Google engineer, product owner or other worker here. All these things are well done and I am excited about the prospects. I find it disappointing that the keynote was a sales pitch. It did not pay respect to this work and failed to show the workings rather than the final product. IO is advertised as a developer conference, not a end user oriented sales show. It felt disconnected.

Things that made me happy

Chris Heilmann covered in sunscreen, wearing a bandana in front of Google Loon

  • The social events were great – the concert in the amphitheatre was for those who wanted to go. Outside was a lot of space to have a chat if you’re not the dancing type. The breakout events on the second day were plentiful, all different and arty. The cynic in my sniggered at Burning Man performers (the anthithesis to commercialism by design) doing their thing at a commercial IT event, but it gave the whole event a good vibe.
  • Video recording and live streaming – I watched quite a few of the talks I missed the last two days in the gym and I am grateful that Google offers these on YouTube immediately, well described and easy to find in playlists. Using the app after the event makes it easy to see the talks you missed.
  • Boots on the ground – everyone I wanted to meet from Google was there and had time to chat. My questions got honest and sensible answers and there was no hand-waving or over-promising.
  • A good focus on health and safety – first aid tents, sunscreen and wet towels for people to cool down, creature comforts for an outside environment. The organisers did a good job making sure people are safe. Huge printouts of the Code of Conduct also made no qualm about it that antisocial or aggressive behaviour was not tolerated.


Jatinder and me at the keynote

I will go again to Google IO, to talk, to meet, to see product demos and to have people at hand that can give me insight further than the official documentation. I am likely to not get up early next time to see the keynote though and I would love to see a better handle on the crowd control. It is frustrating to queue and not being able to see talks at the conference of a company who prides itself at organising huge datasets and having self-driving cars.
Here are a few things that could make this better:

  • Having screening tents with the video and the transcription screens outside the main tents. These don’t even need sound (which is the main outside issue)
  • Use the web site instead of two apps. Advocating progressive web apps and then telling me in the official conference mail to download the Android app was not a good move. Especially as the PWA outperformed the native app at every turn – including usability (the thing native should be much better). It was also not helpful that the app showed the name of the stage but not the number of the tent.
  • Having more places to charge phones would have been good, or giving out power packs. As we were outside all the time and moving I didn’t use my computer at all and did everything on the phone.

I look forward to interacting and working with the tech Google. I am confused about the Google that tries to be in the hands of end users without me being able to crack the product open and learn from how it is done.

ChakraCore and Node musings at NodeConf London

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Yesterday morning I dragged myself to present at NodeConf London in the Barbican to present. Dragged not because I didn’t want to, but because I had 3 hours sleep coming back from Beyond Tellerand the day before.

Presenting at NodeConfLondon
Photo by Adrian Alexa

I didn’t quite have time to prepare my talk, and I ended up finishing my slides 5 minutes before it. That’s why I was, to use a simple term, shit scared of my talk. I’m not that involved in the goings on in Node, and the impostor in me assumed the whole audience to be all experts and me making an utter berk of myself. However, this being a good starting point I just went with it and used the opportunity to speak to an audience that much in the know about something I want Node to be.

I see the Node environment and ecosystem as an excellent opportunity to test out new JavaScript features and ideas without the issue of browser interoperability and incompatibility.

The thing I never was at ease about it though is that *everything is based on on one JS engine&. This is not how you define and test out a standard. You need to have several runtimes to execute your code. Much like a browser monoculture was a terrible thing and gave us thousands of now unmaintainable and hard to use web sites, not opening ourselves to various engines can lead to terrible scripts and apps based on Node.

The talk video is already live and you can also see all the other talks in this playlist:

The slides are on Slideshare:

NodeConfLondon – Making ES6 happen with ChakraCore and Node from Christian Heilmann

A screencast recording of the talk is on YouTube.

Resources I mentioned:

I was very happy to get amazing feedback from everyone I met, and that people thoroughly enjoyed my presentation. Goes to show that the voice in your head telling you that you’re not good enough often is just being a a dick.

Turning a community into evangelism helpers – DevRelCon Notes

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

These are the notes of my talk at DevRelCon in San Francisco. “Turning a community into evangelism helpers” covered how you can scale your evangelism/advocacy efforts. The trick is to give up some of the control and sharing your materials with the community. Instead of being the one who brings the knowledge, you’re the one who shares it and coaches people how to use it.

fox handshake-campusparty

Why include the community?

First of all, we have to ask ourselves why we should include the community in our evangelism efforts. Being the sole source of information about your products can be beneficial. It is much easier to control the message and create materials that way. But, it limits you to where you can physically be at one time. Furthermore, your online materials only reach people who already follow you.

Sharing your materials and evangelism efforts with a community reaps a lot of benefits:

  • You cut down on travel – whilst it is glamorous to rack up the air miles and live the high life of lounges and hotels it also burns you out. Instead of you traveling everywhere, you can nurture local talent to present for you. A lot of conferences will want the US or UK presenter to come to attract more attendees. You can use this power to introduce local colleagues and open doors for them.
  • You reach audiences that are beyond your reach – often it is much more beneficial to speak in the language and the cultural background of a certain place. You can do your homework and get translations. But, there is nothing better than a local person delivering in the right format.
  • You avoid being a parachute presenter – instead of dropping out of the sky, giving your talk and then vanishing without being able to keep up with the workload of answering requests, you introduce a local counterpart. That way people get answers to their requests after you left in a language and format they understand. It is frustrating when you have no time to answer people or you just don’t understand what they want.

Share, inspire, explain

Starts by making yourself available beyond the “unreachable evangelist”. You’re not a rockstar, don’t act like one. Share your materials and the community will take them on. That way you can share your workload. Break down the barrier between you and your community by sharing everything you do. Break down fears of your community by listening and amplifying things that impress you.

Make yourself available and show you listen

  • Have a repository of slide decks in an editable format – besides telling your community where you will be and sharing the videos of your talks also share your slides. That way the community can re-use and translate them – either in part or as a whole.
  • Share out interesting talks and point out why they are great – that way you show that there is more out there than your company materials. And you advertise other presenters and influencers for your community to follow. Give a lot of details here to show why a talk is great. In Mozilla I did this as a minute-by-minute transcript.
  • Create explanations for your company products, including demo code and share it out with the community – the shorter and cleaner you can keep these, the better. Nobody wants to talk over a 20 minute screencast.
  • Share and comment on great examples from community members – this is the big one. It encourages people to do more. It shows that you don’t only throw content over the wall, but that you expect people to make it their own.

Record and teach recording

Keeping a record of everything you do is important. It helps you to get used to your own voice and writing style and see how you can improve over time. It also means that when people ask you later about something you have a record of it. Ask for audio and video recordings of your community presenting to prepare for your one on one meetings with them. It also allows you to share these with your company to show how your community improves. You can show them to conference organisers to promote your community members as prospective speakers.

Recordings are great

  • They show how you deliver some of the content you talked about
  • They give you an idea of how much coaching a community member needs to become a presenter
  • They allow people to get used to seeing themselves as they appear to others
  • You create reusable content (screencasts, tutorials), that people can localise and talk over in presentations

Often you will find that a part of your presentation can inspire people. It makes them aware of how to deliver a complex concept in an understandable manner. And it isn’t hard to do – get Camtasia or Screenflow or even use Quicktime. YouTube is great for hosting.

Avoid the magical powerpoint

One thing both your company and your community will expect you to create is a “reusable power point presentation”. One that people can deliver over and over again. This is a mistake we’ve been doing for years. Of course, there are benefits to having one of those:

  • You have a clear message – a Powerpoint reviewed by HR, PR and branding and makes sure there are no communication issues.
  • You have a consistent look and feel – and no surprises of copyrighted material showing up in your talks
  • People don’t have to think about coming up with a talk – the talking points are there, the soundbites hidden, the tweetable bits available.

All these are good things, but they also make your presentations boring as toast. They don’t challenge the presenter to own the talk and perform. They become readers of slides and notes. If you want to inspire, you need to avoid that at all cost.

You can have the cake of good messaging and eat it, too. Instead of having a full powerpoint to present, offer your community a collection of talking points. Add demos and screencasts to remix into their own presentations.

There is merit in offering presentation templates though. It can be daunting to look at a blank screen and having to choose fonts, sizes and colours. Offering a simple, but beautiful template to use avoids that nuisance.

What I did in the past was offering an HTML slide deck on GitHub that had introductory slides for different topics. Followed by annotated content slides how to show parts of that topic. Putting it up on GitHub helped the community adding to it, translating it and fork their own presentations. In other words, I helped them on the way but expected them to find their own story arc and to make it relevant for the audience and their style of presenting.

Delegate and introduce

Delegation is the big win whenever you want to scale your work. You can’t reap the rewards of the community helping you without trusting them. So, stop doing everything yourself and instead delegate tasks. What is annoying and boring to you might be a great new adventure for someone else. And you can see them taking your materials into places you hadn’t thought of.

Delegate tasks early and often

Here are some things you can easily delegate:

  • Translation / localisation – you don’t speak all the languages. You may not be aware that your illustration or your use of colour is offensive in some countries.
  • Captioning and transcription of demo videos – this takes time and effort. It is annoying for you to describe your own work, but it is a great way for future presenters to memorise it.
  • Demo code cleanup / demo creation – you learn by doing, it is that simple.
  • Testing and recording across different platforms/conditions – your community has different setups from what you have. This is a good opportunity to test and fix your demos with their hardware.
  • Maintenance of resources – in the long run, you don’t want to be responsible for maintaining everything. The earlier you get people involved, the smoother the transition will be.

Introduce local community members

Sharing your content is one thing. The next level is to also share your fame. You can use your schedule and bookings to help your community:

  • Mention them in your talks and as a resource to contact – you avoid disappointing people by never coming back to them. And it shows your company cares about the place you speak at.
  • Co-present with them at events – nothing better to give some kudos than to share the stage
  • Introduce local companies/influencers to your local counterpart – the next step in the introduction cycle. This way you have something tangible to show to your company. It may be the first step for that community member to get hired.
  • Once trained up, tell other company departments about them. – this is the final step to turn volunteers into colleagues.

Set guidelines and give access

You give up a lot of control and you show a lot of trust when you start scaling by converting your community. In order not to cheapen that, make sure you also define guidelines. Being part of this should not be a medal for showing up – it should become something to aim for.

  • Define a conference playbook – if someone speaks on behalf of your company using your materials, they should also have deliveries. Failing to deliver them means they get less or no support in the future.
  • Offer 1:1 training in various levels as a reward – instead of burning yourself out by training everyone, have self-training materials that people can use to get themselves to the next level
  • Have a defined code of conduct – your reputation is also at stake when one of your community members steps out of line
  • Define benefits for participation – giving x number of talks gets you y, writing x amount of demos y amount of people use give you the same, and so on.

Official channels > Personal Blogs

Often people you train want to promote their own personal channels in their work. That is great for them. But it is dangerous to mix their content with content created on work time by someone else. This needs good explanation. Make sure to point out to your community members that their own brand will grow with the amount of work they delivered and the kudos they got for it. Also explain that by separating their work from your company’s, they have a chance to separate themselves from bad things that happen on a company level.

Giving your community members access to the official company channels and making sure their content goes there has a lot of benefits:

  • You separate personal views from company content
  • You control the platform (security, future plans…)
  • You enjoy the reach and give kudos to the community member.

You don’t want to be in the position to explain a hacked blog or outrageous political beliefs of a community member mixed with your official content. Believe me, it isn’t fun.

Communicate sideways and up

This is the end game. To make this sustainable, you need full support from your company.

For sustainability, get company support

The danger of programs like this is that they cost a lot of time and effort and don’t yield immediate results. This is why you have to be diligent in keeping your company up-to-date on what’s happening.

  • Communicate out successes company-wide – find the right people to tell about successful outreach into markets you couldn’t reach but the people you trained could. Tell all about it – from engineering to marketing to PR. Any of them can be your ally in the future.
  • Get different company departments to maintain and give input to the community materials – once you got community members to talk about products, try to get a contact in these departments to maintain the materials the community uses. That way they will be always up to date. And you don’t run into issues with outdated materials annoying the company department.
  • Flag up great community members for hiring as full-time devrel people

The perfect outcome of this is to convert community members into employees. This is important to the company as people getting through the door is expensive. Already trained up employees are more effective to hit the ground running. It also shows that using your volunteer time on evangelism pays off in the long run. It can also be a great career move for you. People hired through this outreach are likely to become your reports.

[Presenter tips] Gremlins in the machine – stage tech will fail

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

In my role as a coach for other presenters I just ran into a common issue. A talented person giving their first talk and hating it. The reason: everything went wrong with stage technology. This lead to a loss of confidence and putting the blame on oneself. The irony was that the talk wasn’t in a place with tech issues, but in San Francisco. The wireless was not at all up to scratch. The presenter had planned for that: using a ServiceWorker powered HTML slide deck – state of the art what we consider bullet proof and highly portable. But there was no way to make the computer display on the big projector as there was no HDMI connection. That’s why they had to use someone else’s computer. None of the demos worked. Lacking experience, the presenter had a hard time describing what people should see. Furthermore, you don’t want to be the person to promise things without proving them.

Gremlins in the movie theatre

There is no point in throwing blame. Of course, as a prepared speaker you should be able to do fine without your demos. But often we put a lot of effort into these demos and they excited us to write the talk in the first place. Of course the conference organiser should have all connectors and know about display issues. And of course the wireless should work in the middle of tech bubble central. Often conference organisers don’t control connectivity. They have to rely on venue installations and their promises. Shit happens. Time to learn from that. What can we as presenters expect and how can we prepare ourselves for Gremlins in the machinery?

I collected the following tips and ideas presenting at about 80 conferences in the last 4 years. In about 60 venues spread across the globe. So, if your experience was much better – lucky you. Fact is, that things go wrong all the time and often there is nothing you can do.

Bowl of M&Ms

Let’s go back a bit. Van Halen required in their band contract to have a bowl of M&Ms in their room with all the brown ones removed. This has become a running joke when the topic is about entitlement and added to the “ridiculously needy rockstar” myth. The interesting part about this is that this rule served a purpose. Van Halen required a intrinsic stage setup to achieve their unique sound. Their rider describes the necessary stage tech in detail. The M&M rule at the end of the rider is a simple way of knowing if the concert organisers read and understood it. When there was no bowl in the room or it had brown M&Ms in it something was wrong. This needed fixing to avoid a disastrous concert.

The main difference between this story and presenting at conferences is that we’re not rockstars. We can’t demand the things they do, and – more importantly – we aren’t as organised as an industry. In far too many cases there is a massive miscommunication between conference organisers and presenters as to what is needed to give your talk. This is when bad things happen.

The perfect scenario: demand your lack of brown M&Ms

If your talk depends on a lot of things going right, be adamant about this in your talk proposal. Add reminders to your communication with the conference organisers. Outline in very easy to understand words what you need, as in: 

  • I will present from my own computer, a $machine, which means I will need a connector of type $dongle and a resolution of at least $pixelsbypixels. 
  • My slides are in the format of $aspectratio (4:3 or 16:9, you don’t want black bars)
  • I will need audio available as my talk contains videos with audio and audio examples. Please provide the necessary cables.

Be there on time to set up and demand a dry run the day before. This could give you insight into issues and you can get them fixed before you go on stage.

Remember that in some cases, the conference organisers are not in charge. Make sure to get to know the venue AV and connectivity people and talk to them. Also make sure to find out which room you’ll be in and who will be there before you so you have time to set up. Connectivity and AV equipment can vary from room to room even in the same conference.

All this sounds like a lot of work – and it is. You made yourself dependent on your technology – it is up to you to ensure things go smooth. We don’t have roadies and riders for that.

Extra measures: know your issues and bring your own materials

As everything can go wrong, it is good to know the quirks and issues of your own hardware. It is prudent to ensure you bring everything you need:

  • Power cables and local outlet connectors – especially for the MacBook Air. Older versions have the issue that on battery it uses a less powerful video chip than when connected to a main. This could make the difference of your screen showing up on a long VGA cable or not. You also don’t want your computer go to sleep on stage.
  • Network dongle – wireless is likely to fail when used by a lot of people. That’s why conferences offer a wired connection on stage. This one is pretty useless unless you also bring your wired dongle. If you only have one USB port, also bring a splitter/hub.
  • Remote control – this is not a need, but they are useful and not every conference has one. You also get a free laser pointer which comes in handy if you encounter kittens.
  • Display dongle – this is the big one. Make sure that you have a connector from your computer to all kind of display cables. Smashing conference gave out some great ones as speaker gifts:

Multi connector

Bulletproofing measures: have a fallback

The main thing I learned on my travels is to ensure your talk materials are available.That’s why you need a format that means whatever goes wrong, there is still a way out:

  • Be prepared to provide your slides in different aspect ratios — quite often I had to change my slights and both Keynote and Powerpoint make a pig’s ear out of this.
  • Don’t use the full screen in your slides — almost every time I presented the projector cut off some part of the screen. Add a large margin around your content and all will be visible.
  • Have high contrast and large fonts in your slides — lighting is often a mess at conferences and people need to be able to read even in the back.
  • Demos and examples have to work offline and have no online dependencies – if you’re showing off an API, keep cached local results.
  • Create screencasts of your demos – it allows you to talk over them without running into connection issues. You won’t have slow loading pauses. You don’t have to type things in / authenticate from a wonky wireless. Make sure to have the videos embedded in your materials but as video files. A few times powerpoint/keynote failed to show the videos, so I used VLC to save the day.
  • Put all your materials online – this allows you to reach them in case your hardware goes down. And it means people can get to them later.
  • Keep your materials on a USB stick – if you need to use another computer it is a simple way to shift them. Make sure that dependencies you rely on are also on this stick.

Special circumstances: help the conference organisers

Often I found that as a presenter, you have to follow some rules you don’t like when it comes to stage technology. It is up to you to stand your ground and demand what you want to have. Or you could swallow your pride and reach audiences you might not reach otherwise. Here are a few things I encountered that are against my ideas of what I want to do as presenter but made sense:

  • Universities needed the slides to be in Powerpoint. They also needed them running from a fixed computer in the lecture hall. The reason was that the machine was Windows XP. The AV was part of the room and the machine recorded and archived all talks.
  • International conferences offer live translation. It is much easier for translators to have your slides upfront in a printed format. It allows them to annotate the talk and ensure that they keep technical terms English.
  • The last point becomes even more important when there is live sign translation at the event. Signing works by translating the meaning of whole sentences. Not letter by letter or word by word. Having the material upfront makes this much easier.
  • Some places don’t allow unverified hardware to access the network or connect to a projector. I’ve had government sites that were on total lockdown.

Leveling up: know your story, have your resources

Do yourself a favour and strive to liberate yourself from your demos and slides as a presenter. You will be able to do much more exciting work when your presentation is your wallpaper. You are the show and the source of information. It is exciting to see technical things going right. Many are hard to repeat for the audience and they are more of a show than an educational moment.

Instead, point to materials, show what they do and how people can use them. Tell the story of the materials and how they can make the life of your audience better. If that is what you convey, even a power cut won’t make a difference. You present and educate, you don’t run a demo.

Amazing accessibility news all around…

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Lately I’ve been quite immersed in the world of Microsoft to find my way around the new job, and whilst doing so I discovered a few things you might have missed. Especially in the field of accessibility there is some splendid stuff happening.

During the key note of //build last week in San Francisco there were quite a few mind-blowing demos. The video of they keynote is available here (even for download).

For me, it got very interesting 2 hours and five minutes in when Cornelia Carapcea, Senior PM of the Cognitive APIs group shows off some interesting tools:

The results of CRIS are impressive. For example, Cornelia showed off how a set of audio files with interviews with children became much more usable. On the right in this screenshot you see the traditional results of speech to text APIs and on the right what CRIS was able to extract after being trained up:

better quality results of audio to text

The biggest shock for me was to see my old friend Saqib Shaikh appear on stage showing off his Seeing AI demo app. It pretty much feels like accessibility sci-fi becoming reality:

The Microsoft Cognitive Services: Give Your Apps a Human Side breakout session at build had some more interesting demos:

  • Tele2 using the translation API to do live translation of phone calls into other languages. You hear the message in the original language, a beep and then the translation. (34:50 onwards)
  • ProDeaf doing the same to translate live audio into sign language across languages. (40:00 onwards)

Audio to sign language translator

In Andy Sterland’s F12 Developer Tools talk of Edge Web Summit he covered some very important new accessibility features of developer tools:

  • F12 tools for Edge now have not only an accessibility tab in the DOM viewer, but also a live updating Accessibility Tree viewer
  • Narrator for Windows will have a developer mode. You can turn this on using “Narrator + Caps Lock + Shift + F12” and it will only read out the app that you chose rather than the whole operating system, including your editor and the things you type in. To avoid the mistake of looking at the screen whilst using a screen reader, it also automatically hides the screen except for the currently read out part.

tree view

normal view

narrator developer mode

My direct colleage and man of awesome Aaron Gustafson deep dived more into the subject of accessibility and covered a large part of the Inclusive Design Toolkit.

All in all, there is a lot of great stuff happening in the world of accessibility at Microsoft. I had a very easy time researching my talk next week at Funka.