Smartphones have changed lots of people’s lives, but there’s one group that’s been mostly left out of the revolution: the vision impaired.
A touchscreen just doesn’t have enough tactile clues for a blind person to navigate and voice commands are infuriatingly awful. They mishear the voice, are drowned out by background noise, and otherwise cumbersome to use.
Enter serial Israeli startup founder Boaz Zilberman and Project Ray. Zilberman has created a Android operating system designed for the blind. The first unlocked phones were recently released for the Israeli and European markets, and were built by Huawei. In June, they’ll be arriving in the U.S. via an as yet-unnamed carrier, available either unlocked or as part of a contract.
The phones were specially designed around a touch system that every blind person, knows, the 12-key number pad. Every screen has the apps and commands arranged in a square. Simply move the finger and the phone reads the command. Lift the finger off and it executes the command. (Here’s a YouTube video in Hebrew with English subtitles that shows the Project-Ray phone in action.)
The phone’s apps can replace many other devices that a blind person currently uses, like an MP3 player book reader. Books for the device are available for the blind from the Library of Congress, Amazon, others. It also has a GPS app that offers turn-by-turn directions and a camera app can help users with currency. Users scan a bill and the phone tells them if its a $5 bill or a $100.
Zilberman is the founder of Fring, a Facetime-like app with 100 million users worldwide that lets you chat or make video calls. It was one of the first apps of this kind and is so easy-to-use it is popular with the blind and vision impaired.
“I’m known in Israel as an entrepreneur in mobile. People from the blind community approached me with a few questions and it triggered up a complete product,” he says.
The worldwide market of blind people is small, he says, so the project is more of a labour of love right now. But eventually, he’ll expand this version of Android to tablets and add features that make it appropriate for the vision-impaired, people who need large-screen readers and other visual cues. Beyond that, the tech also has implications in other ways, like as an interface while driving.
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