Building a better smartphone for blind users
Smartphones have become incredibly powerful tools for blind people. A phone’s camera can identify money and read text, and GPS navigation tells blind users where they are and what’s nearby. Most mobile accessibility tools can be found through a handful of useful apps on standard smartphones, but there’s a team of developers in Israel working on a new Android phone called Ray. It's a standard Android phone with an interface designed for blind users, that debuts at the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) this week.
“There’s no better tool for blind people than the smartphone,” says Boaz Zilberman, the CEO and founder of Project Ray, “because blind people can practically tailor a mix of applications and capabilities that will help them tremendously in their daily life.”
Eliza Cooper is one of those people. Cooper is a social media consultant who has been totally blind since the age of three. She uses her iPhone throughout the day to identify money, read printed text and get directions. Her phone has replaced most of the devices she used to rely on.
Her new setup is cheaper than the standard toolkit that helps blind people get around, which might include a GPS device, screen reading software, a money reader and more. All that can add up to over $1,000. So far, Cooper has spent about $30 on accessibility apps for her phone.
Zilberman thinks even though smartphones are powerful tools, phones designed for sighted users have their limits. Especially for people who lose their vision later in life, in their 40s and 50s. For one, you have to be pretty technically agile to use a touch screen display that you can’t see.
Screen readers are second nature for someone like Eliza Cooper, who has been using the technology since elementary school. But there is another problem. Some apps on Eliza’s phone are only sort of accessible.
Screen readers rely on developers to label everything with a descriptive name. When users select the send button, the screen reader should say “send button.” But sometimes developers label something incorrectly or give an object a vague name.
This happened when Cooper was showing me around the Google+ app. The screen reader identified a message icon as “button” and she was stuck.
Instead of relying on a screen reader to decode visual information, Ray is designed so that anywhere you touch on the screen becomes your starting point. You swipe your finger up for one menu item and down for another. And, like other products from companies that specialize in accessibility tools, Ray has a support team to deal with problems like unlabeled buttons.
By making a device that’s easier to use, Zilberman thinks he can sell more smartphones to blind people.
“Practically every blind person around the world [has] a telephone,” says Zilberman. “In our calculations we are talking about a billion dollar industry that can be served with our tool.”
The dream is to have one device that does everything a blind person needs, and for blind people worldwide, phones are a good place to start. Ray comes with navigation tools, a money reader, a color identifier, and more.
The problem with Ray is that third party developers will have to write apps specifically for its new interface. For now, that means no Twitter, Facebook or tumblr, apps that Eliza Cooper uses for her job all the time. Cooper worries that if developers have to take that extra step, they won’t, which is why she won’t be giving up her iPhone any time soon.