How can you use a phone if you can't see?

13th Jul 2012 | 12:16

How can you use a phone if you can't see?

The other side of the smartphone boom

With one in 30 people in the UK suffering some sort of sight impediment, it's easy to forget how the smartphone revolution could be passing them by.

As tech fans, we've become a bit blasé about cutting edge features, always looking to next and more impressive thing, even before other features have emerged.

This is true of all technology, but in the smartphone arena things have moved so quickly: the touchscreen, new user interfaces, mapping and powerful gaming are now the norm for a device that costs less than £160.

The flipside of all this technological innovation is that some of the key elements are becoming less accessible to those with visual impairments. Tactile devices with large keys are only available in specialist shops these days, when a few years ago the popular Nokia keypad at least provided familiarity and stability.

Switch that device for a slab of glossy touchscreen gadgetry and the issues the blind face become obvious, with no way of knowing what's being pressed or which of the myriad apps you're looking at.

Screenreader

Maybe you're like us when it comes to the smartphone: feeling guilty for checking it too often, experiencing mild panic when you can't find it for a few seconds and getting antsy when you're denied its presence for any length of time.

The level of reliance on the phone as an entertainment tool as much as a communicator was highlighted to us by ScreenReader, a new mobile app designed for those with sight loss. There is plenty of effort from the likes of Google and Apple to put the likes of screen readers and other accessibility features in their operating systems, but there's not many options for the less technically-minded smartphone user.

To illustrate the need for the app, we spent a couple of hours at a restaurant that is designed to give customers the true experience of blindness during a meal.

It's likely that most people will never have experienced such a thing – it's an eye-opening experience in more ways than one. As soon as we were enveloped by the inescapable darkness, our first instinct was to reach for our phone to use it as a torch.

And when sitting there in the dark unable to interact with others due to the initial cacophony of noise from those entering, there was a constant impulse to fire up the internet browser or knock out a few seconds of Temple Run to pass the time before we could get some kind of other stimulation.

The range of things inaccessible to those with visual impediment isn't necessarily something that would occur to a fully-sighted person. And that's why ScreenReader's new Georgie program is so impressive.

Looking at it from a stark technological point of view it's easy to scoff at the project; large, basic buttons, voice recognition that is still a long way from being accurate and a relatively low range of functionality (contact management, text messaging and basic navigation) aren't exactly going to compete with location-based notifications or eye-tracking software.

Screenreader

But only when deprived of your ocular senses do you realise the incredible power Georgie brings – the smartphone moves from being frustrating and inaccessible to an incredibly useful tool for those with sight problems.

The user interface is the most impressive: sliding your finger over the screen triggers audio feedback to let you know which app is under your digit and a long-press enables it.

It takes some getting used to, but that's from the perspective of someone that has become used to the intricacies of most mobile operating systems. A few minutes of touching and the layout becomes very predictable and stable.

The functionality isn't as great as it could be just yet, but that's more to do with the limitations of modern technology. For instance, voice recognition isn't going to be any use beyond basic requests, and some feedback was erratic, which led to confusion as to how to reset and start again.

But, as Screenreader co-founder Roger Wilson-Hinds told us, if you compare this to similar systems to open up gadgetry to the visually impaired from just five years ago, this is a huge step up in performance for a fraction of the price.

The price is shocking at first: £149 for the standard app, plus £24.99 for each additional pack, which adds in visual recognition, audio feedback and travel upgrades. That's £225 before even buying an Android phone to run Georgie on.

But similar systems from just two years ago cost many thousands of pounds, and didn't have anywhere near as many features; that's when you have to start wondering why such things aren't being developed at a faster rate by bigger brands.

The service is being promoted on existing Samsung phones like the Samsung XCover and Galaxy Ace 2, picked specifically to be easy to use for blind users - although the option to shell out £500 for a Samsung Galaxy S3 is an option too.

Glenn Tookey, CEO of Sight and Sound Technology, which is distributing the service and selling the necessary smartphones, pointed out that it wasn't just the cost of development that led to the price, it was the support system needed to help those using it.

Add to that the relatively limited user base (in the UK there are roughly 360,000 registered blind people and almost 2 million people in the UK living with sight loss, which equates to 1 in 30) and the cost starts to make a lot more sense.

That's not to say today's manufacturers aren't doing their bit: one participant told TechRadar he has been able to use his iPhone quite comprehensively thanks to the accessibility options on offer, with Siri and text-to-speech being particularly good.

In fact, only online banking was a real issue for him, as the proximity sensor can disable the keypad when trying to hear what's on the screen – very impressive for a phone that has such an onus on aesthetics.

And here's the reason to laud, rather than scold, the move towards the glossy, buttonless smartphone: while the tactility is much lower, the effort towards features that will really benefit the blind has ramped up massively.

Almost everything Georgie can do (or needs to improve) is the subject of massive development by many big brands right now: speech recognition, turn by turn walking directions, augmented reality and item recognition are all in beta stages right now, but in three or four years time should become robust enough to bring a glut of top end features to the sight-impaired.

The days when someone would have to spend £20,000 on a washing machine-sized device just to scan some text and have it read back are long gone – here's hoping the iPhone 7 or Samsung Galaxy S5 will be as popular among the blind as those with sight.

And when they are, it will be thanks to the efforts of those like Screenreader for showing that the smartphone can be accessible to all.

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