24.07.2013

Smartphones: An Eye for the Blind

Smartphones: An Eye for the Blind

mage | Metrouk

According to the WHO there are more than 285 million people worldwide who have partially or completely lost their capacity to see: 39 million with complete blindness and 246 million with reduced eyesight. In Spain, the total number of members of ONCE was 70.775 in 2011, while according to the INE, in its latest study from 2008 920.900 people with bad eyesight and 58.300 blind people were counted.

Over the last few years and with technology making progress, a [multitude of different devices] have emerged ( https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr5/issue1/f050113.html) that make everyday life easier for all those people with sight problems, from glasses that read texts aloud to devices trying to convert images in sound. With smartphones entering the market and with a few specific applications the need to have an electronic device for each use is already disappearing, so that the affected person can not only use the telephone without difficulty but the device also becomes a helpful tool making everyday life easier.

Operating systems ready for blind people

Using a mobile phone can be quite a challenge if you have sight problems but manufacturers and software developers are becoming more and more aware of these problems. Android 4.0 introduced a lot of new features all over the Android ecosystem, but the most interesting changes were without a doubt the improvements in accessibility. For example, when sliding your finger over the screen, a voice reads the names of the icons it discovers out loud and even provides instructions on how to use them.

The iPhone 4S brought us Siri, the long awaited intelligent voice assistant from Apple. This innovation, which – thanks to the artificial intelligence that comes with it – is much more than dictation tool, was very well received among people with sight problems. An example is this post written by Sandi, a blind blogger, using Siri in which she tells us about all the things she can do with this tool, mentioning tasks which may seem trivial to many people but for a person with reduced vision may be quite a challenge.
Some companies have gone even further and have customized already existing terminals and operating systems with the idea to adapt them to blind people’s needs. [Georgie[(http://metro.co.uk/2012/07/12/meet-georgie-the-first-smartphone-designed-specifically-for-blind-people-3373549/) is one example, a launcher for Android which allows you to send text messages easily with a voice-to-text converter and which includes voice controlled browsing. In addition to that, it comes with a package of specific applications which can be downloaded by anybody, each of them created to help with a specific task: bus lines, the time, a color detector, assistance, social networks… all of them designed in a way that helps people with seeing problems get the most out of their terminal.

Specific and more advanced applications…

As we have seen with applications helping people suffering from diabetes with their daily routine, smartphones can also be used as platforms to run more advanced applications. In the recent years we have seen a lot of progress in this field, with a multitude of studies and proposals coming from developers as well as from academic investigators.

In cooperation with various American universities, a group of teachers created VizWiz, an application which enables blind people to identify objects around them. The way it works is quite simple: a photograph of whatever the user wants to identify is taken and it is automatically sent to a group of volunteers together with a question about what the user wants to know. One of them sees it, answers and sends a note to the owner of the terminal.

Another advanced solution comes from Alicante University, with a tool that can detect obstacles that may interfere with people movements, giving vibration alarm warnings if necessary. Just be aware that for this to work correctly, the user needs a mobile with 3D capacity.

Also of Spanish origin is OnTheBus, an application for Android designed for blind people that plans travel routes using public transportation. The app guides the user to the bus stops and offers additional information, like waiting time for the next bus or the stops on the way.

… and for everyday life as well

However it is not necessary to look into major field studies or make use of complex technology in order to create an application that can be useful for a blind person in their everyday life. LookTel Money for example, allows you to scan a bill and instantly know its value. Color Identifier does exactly what its name suggests: It identifies colors. You want to find a light source? Light Detector is a good solution, emitting signal sounds according to the intensity of the source.

Apart from the great variety of solutions currently existing, there is another positive aspect to consider, when we are talking about how useful smartphones are for blind people: Each day more alternatives are appearing, more specific papers, which help us make use of the different tools these terminals have to offer like (GPS, accelerometer, camerassocial networks, etc.) to invent a new practical uses. These types of applications have a great future.