While sci-fi-style advancements like bionic eyes that help restore human vision might be getting closer to reality, everyday gadgets like smartphones can still pose major hurdles to the blind and visually impaired.
A new device called Ray aims to make the smartphone space friendlier to the sight-challenged by integrating standard smartphone capabilities with the functions of specialty devices that many blind consumers now pair with basic mobile phones to create a full smartphone experience.
Rather than having to rely on audio-book readers, navigation tools, raised Braille labels, special bar-code scanners, and large-buttoned and voice-enabled MP3 players, therefore, they can turn to just one device.
The multifunction Ray combines off-the-shelf Android smartphone hardware powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor with a custom user interface designed for eye-free operation. The UI, developed in Israel, employs a touch screen, haptics, sensors, text-to-speech, and audio feedback to support phone calls, sending and receiving e-mails and text messages, social networking, remote device management, and more.
For example, "the user touches any position on the screen and that position becomes the starting point for selecting an audio book, messaging, or other activity," Boaz Zilberman, CEO of Project Ray, the developer of the interface, said in a statement. "Navigation is enabled by a few simple finger movements in different directions. The phone's built-in vibration capabilities and voice prompts provide user feedback and the UI learns to adapt its behavior based on users' preferences and usage patterns."
Trials of Ray are currently under way in Israel, where subscribers can use the device to access and download audio books, magazines, and periodicals from the country's Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped over an advanced mobile broadband network rather than waiting to receive CD copies in the mail.
According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide -- 39 million of those are blind and 246 million have low vision.
Eliza Cooper, a blind social-media consultant in New York who has critiqued new apps aimed at blind users of the iPhone, had a mixed initial reaction when I told her about the Ray.
"I believe companies should not revert to creating third-party devices for the blind which provide access to smartphone technology but look different than the ones that their non-disabled friends have," she said over e-mail. Still, given that the device claims to provide solutions to daily annoyances like identifying objects via bar codes and reading labels, she said, "I must admit that I am intrigued and would like to get my hands on one to try it out."