19 August 2014

Africa: Free App to Help Blind People Use Smartphones

A free app to help blind people use different functions on smartphones has been launched this week, allowing tapping gestures to be translated into text.

The Simpleye app will initially be available for free for Android smartphones.

"It should be available to everyone who needs it," says the app's Indian designer Sumit Dagar, who is also working on developing one of the world's first Braille smartphones.

Dagar is looking into how to charge users in developed countries a small amount to recover start-up costs, although he hopes to keep the app free in the developing world where most blind or visually impaired people live.

Touching the screen using different tapping or swiping gestures work as imitations of Braille, says Dagar. The app also gives audio feedback, reading out words created by the gestures, and even points out words that do not make sense.

Dagar is now is looking to make the app multilingual so that non-English speakers can use it. He says he has a working prototype or "launcher" that has basic functionalities such as desktop tools, calling, text messaging and a calculator. More complicated aspects such as navigation and music are still being designed.

But progress on the Braille smartphone has been slowed down by lack of funds and high production costs, which currently stand at about US$800 per piece. Dagar says he may approach organisations such as the UN or Google for possible collaboration in the near future.

He hopes his smartphone will eventually work with apps such as Facebook; he plans to approach these organisations directly to achieve this.

A decision still has to be taken on whether to release a basic version of the phone with compromised functionality - without navigation for example - or to wait until the full functionality is available, says Dagar.

OwnFone, the UK-based designers of the first Braille phone that went on sale for £60 (US$100) earlier this year in the United Kingdom, say they plan to launch a kickstarter project to raise funds to make their product available internationally.

OwnFone's first international partner is based in Australia, but the company gives no details about whether the phone will be available in developing countries or how much they would charge in these areas.

OwnFone wished good luck to Dagar's phone. "The more devices on the market to help the blind or the partially-sighted, the better," they said.

A spokesman from the UK-based Royal London Society for Blind People praised Dagar's app, saying, "Simpleye is a great typing alternative for blind and partially sighted Braille users, and we applaud the efforts of developers working to expand the choice of accessibility apps for vision impaired smartphone users."

But Daniel Kish, founder of the non-profit World Access for the Blind, warned that many technologies fall by the wayside because they do not consider users' needs carefully enough.

"There's got to be an intuitive user interface. The interface is almost never intuitive to a blind person," he cautioned.

You can follow the reporter on Twitter at @DalmeetS

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