Concept Smartphone Could Bring Sight to Visually Impaired


A recently posted TED video gave me pause as I thinking about how lucky I am to have all of my senses. The beautiful display on the Samsung Infuse 4G is simply another piece of smooth glass to someone who is visually impaired, for example. But there’s hope based on Sumit Dagar’s brief video that explains how a Braille concept phone could be just as functional for the visually impaired as a standard smartphone is for me and you.

Perhaps what impresses me most is how Dagar is extending smartphone apps that exist today into a braille phone for tomorrow. When I saw how his concept phone uses the integrated camera to scan standard text and then translate it to braille on a tactile screen, I was reminded of both Word Lens and Google Googles(s goog).

The former immediately translates words into different languages on devices while the latter shoots a picture to the cloud for translation over a wireless connection. Dagar is taking the idea beyond text, however; snapping a picture with the handset will generate the image via tactile outlines on the screen.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much progress in dynamic Braille screens, so Dagar’s great idea is still just that — a great idea. The closest I’ve seen to any similar technology that might be leveraged is the BrailleNote PK, a device that can connect wirelessly to a mobile phone and display information in Braille across a tactile area.

But a screen itself may not be needed. The Thimble concept is a wearable device that transmits data in Braille to a single finger and could supplement a smartphone screen. Again, it would be limited to text only, which isn’t enough for Dagar’s forward-thinking vision to take shape. However, it’s another encouraging step towards helping vision impaired users enjoy what we may today take for granted.


Matthew Frederick

This and another recent braille-to-fix-iDevices bit of news going around makes me think that tech journalists are unaware of Apple’s VoiceOver technology in iOS and how it has radically opened up access to the world for a tremendous number of blind people. Posting a bunch of links will likely force this comment into spam, so I encourage you to look into it yourself.

There are dozens of videos and websites devoted to the revolution that’s come about in the last couple of years as a result; just search for iPhone and VoiceOver or iPhone and Accessibility, and check out sites like AppleVis and the Blind Access Journal. Those who are both blind and deaf could benefit from Braille devices that interface with smartphones and tablets, but otherwise the existing VoiceOver technology is usually superior, allowing for much quicker navigation and assimilation of information than a electromechanical braille device ever could.

It’s a fine idea, and there are some advantages (no need to be able to hear, as in a loud room or a business meeting), but to a large extent technology has moved past braille. The text produced by things like Google Goggles and the text in Mobile Safari, iBooks, etc. is all accessible, allow for powerful text to speech. Apps specifically aimed at blind users are making a huge difference, too, like oMoby, which uses the iPhone’s camera and a large database in the cloud to recognize products (is that a jar of mayonnaise or jam?) and currency, and apps that help identify colors in order to make clothes matching easier, and many more.

Braille opened up a whole new world to the blind; iOS and VoiceOver, along with the iPhone’s compass, GPS, camera, rotation/tilt sensors, and touchscreen have made another leap, combining tens of thousands of dollars in specialized equipment that easily filled a shopping cart just a few years ago into a single handheld device. The future is, if you’ll excuse the term, bright for blind smartphone users. If app developers would take the tiny extra step to ensure their apps are fully accessible that future would come even faster.

Kevin C. Tofel

Matthew, you’re completely correct: there are existing software solutions such as VoiceOver for iOS and various accessibility apps for Google Android to name a few. We’re definitely aware of them; we’ve reported on them in the past and there wasn’t any intended oversight in this post. My take is that folks who are interested in accessibility for iOS and Android are already aware of them. I figure that fewer people have seen what was shared at TED, hence my writing about it today.

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