New version of popular chess app offers improved VoiceOver support

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

An updated version of the Chess-wise app has just been released that offers significantly improved accessibility for VoiceOver users.

The developer of this app has worked closely with a number of blind iDevice users, and early reports from the VIPhone mailing list indicate that this new version of the chess game is very accessible.

You can navigate the board using a one-finger swipe, or you can just slide one finger around the board and VoiceOver will announce the coordinates and the name of a piece if one occupies that square. To make a move, use one finger to locate the piece you want to move, then double-tap. VoiceOver will announce "Selected." Now use one finger again to locate the destination square and double-tap again.

The developer offers both a lite version of Chess-wise and a paid version

The developer has also updated three of their other games to provide improved accessibility. These apps are: 10x10 Checker-wise PRO, Draughts-wise PRO and Xiangqi-wise PRO.

The developer is keen to stress that these are considered as first versions of these games in their accessible form. Although much of these games is now accessible, further work will be needed to provide full VoiceOver support. To this end, they are encouraging users to provide feedback on any accessibility issues that they encounter.

It is great to see a developer responding so positively to requests for improved accessibility.

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2 Comments

new chess-wise version

have not fully tried the new version but the board is definitely accessible, a couple of weeks ago I sent the developer an email requesting he consider adding VO support and he answered immediately that he'd heard from another blind user and was looking into it - great nice surprise to see how quickly he released an accessible version, he is looking for comments and suggestions for improvements, so please do that - if you like chess, this is the only such app that works with VO.

Current limitations and future improvements

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

The developer of these apps has provided the following information about some of the limitations of the current versions ans his plans for further improvements:

I would like to describe the current limitations, suggestions for improvement, and a time path for future development.

The chess program opens with a menu structure which contains all the mayor functionality. Most menu options take you directly to a new screen, but the first option (Play) shows a sub-menu with the options of a 1 player or 2 player mode. Both choices open another sub-menu with the options "Casual" and "Timed", this first one meaning without a clock and the latter with a clock. As the game clock is currently not accessible, I would advise you to choose "Casual" for now.

The view then changes to the playing screen. The board is in the middle of the screen, and by moving your finger you can hear the coordinates, and, if a square is occupied, the color and name of the piece. Once you have found the piece you want to move, double tap. You will hear "Selected". Locate the destination square and double tap again to make a move, which is then spoken. In the 1 player mode, the computer will make a counter-move, which is also spoken.

The title of the view holds the last played move, which will be spoken when you touch in the middle of the the title bar. On the right side, there is a move indicator, showing which color moves next, and on the left there is of course the "Back" button.

Castling is done by moving the king 2 steps to its final square.

I've had several reaction of people asking for improvements in the feedback while entering a move. For instance, when you make an illegal move, it is not spoken, and you currently get no indication that something went wrong. In the next update of the app, I will let it say "Illegal move." This will deselect the selected piece, so you have to start all over with entering your move. A second annoyance is that there is currently no feedback when you deselect a piece (by double tapping an empty square). This will be solved with the text "Deselected".

Also, when a move is played which gives check, I will let it say "Check." The same with checkmate and stalemate. Currently, the end of the game is only announced with the spoken text "Game over", without an indication of the reason why the game is over (checkmate, stalemate, only kings left, 3 times repetition of a position, 50 moves without a capture or pawn move, out of time (when playing with a clock)).

When you promote a pawn, and have chosen the piece to promote to, the focus changes to the Back button, which is kind of annoying. I will see if I can solve that. And I just saw that promotion moves are not spoken correctly, but that will be easy to fix.

Back to the main screen, the next option is "Analyze". This differs from "Play" in that there is an extra button in the bottom toolbar which makes the engine play a move. So, you can mix your own moves with moves by the engine, to analyze a position.

The next option is "Setup". This can be used to setup a particular position, but I have not managed to make it accessible. I either have to redesign some code, or drop support for version 3.1.2 of the operating system, both of which I am not keep on doing at the moment. Maybe in the coming weeks I can think of something better.

The same is true for the "Tablebase" option. This page show the outcome of endgames with 6 pieces or less, but it is not accessible yet.

The next option is "Replay". This is where you go to is after playing a game you want to go through the moves again. On the bottom of the screen there are buttons for moving forward and backward. With the right-most button you can exchange the layout of the toolbar with a slider, to scrub to the right point in the game. I will have to add more feedback for the to be usable by you, because now there is no feedback on how the state of the slider relates to the game position.

Then comes the database. It contains around 700 different tournaments, which will be downloaded simply by selecting them. Every tournament contains of a list of games, which will be opened in the "Replay" screen, as described above. Important to know is that the replay screen has 2 buttons in the title bar. On the left there is the usual "Back" button, which brings you back to the list of games in the tournament. On the right there is a "Done" button which brings you stringt back to the home screen.

The next option is "Online Search". This is a way to search in an online database with 3 and a half million games. The best way to avoid spelling mistakes is to select a player form the player list (on the right side of the top two table rows).
The list of results shows games with again open in the "Replay" screen.

Then come the exercises, 300 of them. The object is: play the best move. There is always exactly one winning move. On the top right, you can see whose move it is, and that players always plays from the bottom to the top. If you enter a move you will hear either "Right" or "Wrong". In the first case, the button on the top right changes to "Next". In the second case, the button changes to "Try again".

The last page is the settings page. Here, you can set the time which the engine will think. If you want to play Fisherandom chess (a variant in which the pieces are shuffled at the beginning of the game) you can turn on Chess960. Then, every new game you will get a different starting position. A real challenge!

Next to the chess program, I also made my other games accessible. Here, I will briefly describe the differences in the interface.

CHECKERS

This is the 10 by 10 international version. The squares on the board are numbered from 1 to 50, instead of having coordinates like in chess. Just like studying the piano, it requires effort to learn it. And just as everyone knows that M and N are neighbors in the alphabet, checker players know that 33 and 28 are diagonally one step away from each other on the checker board. The point is to play enough games to simply know where each square is in relation to the other squares. I understand some initial frustration with the board, but I think the way forward is not for me to implement a new coordinate system, but for the users to get some flying hours.

The number system is really quite handy once you are used to it. For instance, all the multiples of 5 are on the right side. Of those 10 squares which are multiples of 5, half of them are also multiples of 10. The other half (5, 15, 25, 35 and 45) are safe squares, on the edge of the board. They cannot be captured. On the left side there is something similar. Those squares are multiples of 5 plus one. Half of them are also multiples of 10 plus one. The other half (6, 16, 26, 36 and 46) are safe squares. In every column, the last digit is the same. So, 33 is two rows below 23, which is two rows below 13, etc. If white moves from a square which has a last digit between 1 and 5, then moving diagonally to the left subtracts 5, and diagonally to the right subtracts 4. Otherwise, it subtracts one more, so 6 and 5. To come back to the first example: white can move from 33 to 28 (5 less) by moving diagonally to the left. A simple forward capture of white always subtracts either 9 or 11, because the squares you end up at is two row up (which ends in the same digit), and one square to the left or to the right.

Currently, captures are not announced correctly, because of a small bug, which has already been fixed for the next version.

The app contains an interface to Tournament-base, which is a Dutch website where you can follow the games of the Dutch national competition, which is the highest level competition in the world. Because the website is in Dutch, it will take some practice to browse to the actual games, but with some help you might be able to manage. The games, again, open in the "Replay" screen.

There's also a collection of instruction video's.

DRAUGHTS

This is the 8 by 8 version of the same game. It supports a number of different sets of rules, because the game is played slightly different in every country. The squares numbering system goes from1 to 32.

XIANGQI

This is the Chinese form of chess, which is actually played by more people than our western chess. The board is a bit larger (9 by 10) and the pieces move differently, but the object is the same: to checkmate the king. If you like chess, you will probably also like Xiangqi. In one of the next version I will add a page describing the rules. For now, you will have to read the Wikipedia page to learn the game.

TRANSLATIONS

I've asked a number of you for making translations of the games, and I am grateful to those who have taken on the challenge. For those of you translating: no need to rush. With every update, I will include the translations which I have received back from you. The rest can wait for the update after that.

Currently supported languages are: English, Spanish, Russian, German, Dutch and Polish (incomplete). Polish will be completed in the next update. Translations are underway for: Portuguese, French, Czech, Norwegian, Danish, Italian and Chinese. To add new languages, I have to use some criteria, as otherwise the time needed for maintaining the documentation will explode. So, I will have to reject languages spoken by people who are also fluent in any of the already supported languages. It's not a race for as many languages as possible, but for reaching as many people as possible. This may change as the program matures, and the documentation converges to a stable version.

FUTURE

What is next? Before I started making the apps accessible I was working on a desktop version of all the games. Of course, I will keep accessibility in mind during the development. It will take me a few more months to finish, though. And it will be Mac only.

Other games which I am working on are the Japanese game Go, Japanese chess (Shogi) and Korean chess (Janggi).

The chess app will get an interface to the Free Online Chess Server (FICS), where you can find hundreds of people playing chess at any time.

All the games will get Game Center integration, which is Apple's platform for online gaming against friends. You will be able to create list of friends and challenge them to a game.

All this is work in progress, with some things already working in Beta (like the FICS interface) and other things not working at all yet (like Game Center).

So, that's it for now. I appreciate user feedback, but you may want to wait for the next version instead of everyone mailing me with the same points. I know what has to be done for the next version (1.15), and after that your suggestions for improvement are welcome. Version 1.15 should be ready in two weeks, plus the time it takes Apple to review it.