Today's smartphones offer the computational power of yesterday's desktop computers, coupled with intuitive, easy-to use interfaces, all small enough to fit in our pockets.
For the visually impaired, however, it's been another story. The visual design of such devices has largely rendered them useless to those who can't see. Taking up the challenge of making mobile devices useful for the vision impaired, Project Ray has launched the "world's only multi-purpose assistive tools with integrated Internet services." Here's a short video:
Empowering the blind and visually impaired
The project offers customers the choice between an Android app and a specially designed phone.
The Ray app, which is available from GooglePlay, is a software-only implementation suitable for any Android device with OS version 4.2 and above.
The hardware equivalent is the Ray phone, which was introduced in 2012 as a partnership among the Project Ray startup, Qualcomm Technologies (which makes the Snapdragon processor that powers the phone), and the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired, and Handicapped (which allows the phone to tap right into its holdings of periodicals and audio books). Here's a slightly longer video:
Working for -- and with -- the target group
I contacted the Israeli startup's founder and CEO, Boaz Zilberstein, to learn more about how the technology works for its target market. He explained things as follows:
We work closely with our users to ensure that we provide them with the right solution. Actually, all of my QA and Support people are blind (two completely blind and two with partial sight). The large majority of our users are legally blind, which means that they all need tools to help them in daily life, but they are not necessarily fully blind. One important thing to note is that our target group is older people, most of whom lost their sight at a later stage (around 40-50 years old), rather than young and relatively capable young users who prefer working with standard devices and off-the-shelf solutions.
According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are visually impaired. Of these, "39 million are blind and 246 have low vision." Most of them are over 50 -- an age group that accounts for 82% of the blind and 65% of the visually impaired.
The limits of Braille
As Braille is not a feature in the phone's interface, I asked Zilberstein about its absence. He explained that Braille is only helpful for a small minority of the blind population because only 10 to 20% can read it. It's just 10% in the US, and this includes young students who are still acquiring their literacy skills. People who lose their ability to see due to age or health issues find it even more difficult to learn a new language for reading.
The RAY N5 phone provides a dual-mode access to Ray or standard Android on a Google's Nexus 5 Platform. It has a 4.95-inch, multitouch display that combines vocal and haptic response to create an interface that doesn't depend on vision. It also offers voice dial and speech recognition functions. Like other smartphones, it has a built-in camera.
A camera in a phone for the visually impaired? I asked Zilberstein about the use of the camera by people who don't see. He said that even the visually impaired enjoy taking pictures and sharing a visual record of where they've been and who they were with.
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