SMS for the Blind
By Tan Ming Sin
15 April 2012 - With the advancing technologies nowadays, we are experiencing the good time with all these new tablets and smartphones simplistic user-interface (UI). However, this UI subsequently raises concern for those who are visually-impaired. While a keypad may still be possible for them to figure the function of their phones, the touchscreen seems impossible for any physical-touch-reading. From the current trends, we are not seeing any company likely to reverse their current technology from touchscreen back to the classic keypad. Evidently, there are still smartphone that come with QWERTY-keypads or tablets with detachable keyboard. However, these are more for the convenience of a non-handicapped person to speed up their work. Here, we are talking about a technology for those who are visually-handicapped.
The Early Stage
Before we move on to the current tech, let’s trace back to the earlier technology for blind text messaging. In a report by BBC in 2002, the team BTexact developed a handheld computer which reads text messages to the recipient. All that the user needs to do is to transmit the message into the handheld computer and it will do the rest. The voice can recognise shortcuts and reads unrecognised words phonetically so that you won’t be missing out anything on the message. The software was based on the speech engine developed for computer and the team was able to shrink the system down to the size of a pocket PC. This pocked-sized handheld computer proved to be a convenience for the visually-impaired to have it around with them any time of the day. However, be reminded that this handheld computer was practiced during the time when the dominant phones were still those with keypads.
The Current Stage
Now we look at our technology today. From a physically touch-readable keypad, we moved on to touchscreen phones or tablets. What is the impact for the visually-impaired? Mr. Romero (School of Interactive Computing) said “blind people say I “see” things with my fingers. But on touchscreen they are truly blind”. What Mr. Romero implied in regard to touchscreen is that blind people used to have their sensitive finger ends to memorise the keypad on the phone or read the Braille letters labelled on the keyboard. However when touchscreen became the trend, their sensitive fingers were unable to detect indentations on a flat piece of glass. Mr. Romero added that “there is extreme concern about this new trend. A lot of equipment today - from copying machines to machines at the gym - are all coming with touchscreens."
Of course not all companies are forsaking the visually-impaired. Apple Inc. for one has developed the VoiceOver function for most of their touchscreen devices. As the name implies, the VoiceOver function is more like the “text-to-speech” software as mentioned above. As you touch on the screen, the device will read out whichever apps you are in-contact with or the functions you are currently on. Here’s a demo on the VoiceOver
However, when it comes to SMS or emailing, you can spot that the VoiceOver will just read aloud the alphabet or the shortcut you are in-contact with. This makes it tedious for those visually-impaired to recognize each and every word nonetheless to type out a full message. Moreover, the VoiceOver function disregards the formal language used by most of the blind people, the Braille.
A brief intro to Braille. It was invented by Louis Braille in France, 1821. Each character is made up of six dots. The dots are positioned in two columns with three rows. Braille-readers will read the words by placing their sensitive finger ends over the code and passing over each character to form a word. On the other hand, Braille typing comes in two types. One uses the Perkins Brailler which has one key for each of the dots on Braille and another one is the normal computer keyboard which has been labelled with Braille letters.
The Brailletouch App
The Georgia Tech led by Mr. Romero developed the Brailletouch apps which uses the Perkins Brailler concept. The system is operated with just six fingers, three from one hand – index, middle and ring finger. The six dots on the screen indicate the six dots on the Braille character and each time a letter is typed, the phone will read it aloud. Spacing is typed by touching the middle of the screen. Mr. Romero claims that a Braille user will be able to use this to type much faster than the QWERTY-keyboard. He further explains that this app can be used even for those non-handicapped. It is more of an “eyes-free” solution to multitask when the person is visually occupied with something else. Nevertheless, a non-handicapped person will have to go through the guide for typing Braille to use the app which Romero claims that “it’s not something that takes years”.
While we wait to hear feedbacks from users of the Brailletouch app, we are pleased to say that at least there are still teams who are willing to help the disabled to overcome with their handicap. With companies like Apple are doing their part to ease the transition to technology of those less-fortunate, we might see more practical, easier solutions in the near future.
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