Smartphones are eyesight-intensive devices. As evidence, you merely have to glimpse around any crowded public place and you'll often see dozens of people with their heads down, eyes locked onto their phones, oblivious to the world around them. For the visually-impaired, however, the smartphone experience is very different.
A blind person can't see an on-screen smartphone keyboard. And typing with a teensy physical keyboard is tough enough for people with 20/20 vision, much less those who struggle to see a full-sized computer keyboard. That's why sending e-mails and texts is a major challenge for anyone who has hampered vision.
But with a new smartphone app called BrailleTouch, you can conjure text messages without even so much as glancing at your phone. BrailleTouch is the brainchild of a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech, who set out to make eyes-free text entry easier and faster than ever before.
Open source and free, BrailleTouch is a step forward in digital Braille composition. There are other dedicated Braille devices available. The Braille Sense PLUS, for example, let you type, read e-mails and texts, and even surf the Web. The drawback? It weighs 2 pounds and costs as much as a small car. The BrailleTouch app, on the other hand, installs into a much more affordable gadget, one that many people already own.
Before you even think it, no, this app isn't an easier way to text and drive -- don't even think about it. But more on that perilous subject later. As you'll discover in the following pages, BrailleTouch's ease-of-use and simple functionality results in a smartphone that's more powerful and user-friendly for just about anyone who needs fast text entry.
Unlike a typical smartphone keyboard, you don't need sight in order to use BrailleTouch. All you need is touch.
To understand how the app works, it helps to have a basic understanding of Braille. You can catch up by reading How Braille Works. In short, Braille is a basic system made up of a 3 by 2 matrix, or grid. On printed paper, you use your fingers to read Braille by feeling raised dots placed on the grid. Each combination of dots in that grid coincides with a letter in the alphabet or punctuation.
Translating the Braille system to a smartphone screen meant tweaking things a bit. The BrailleTouch keyboard has the bare essentials, featuring just six on-screen buttons placed three to each side of the phone's screen.
In order to compose a message, you press various combinations of these buttons. Each combination is called a chord, which correlates to one of 63 different characters, including the entire alphabet as well as special characters such as commas and exclamation points. With the correct swiping gesture, you'll insert a space or delete an incorrect entry. You'll know when you make a mistake because BrailleTouch offers voice, click or vibration feedback.
To use the system, you actually face the phone away from your body. You grasp the phone by placing your middle three fingers on each side of the app's keyboard. Touch the button or buttons that correspond to the letter you want, and the software inputs the character into your text or e-mail. Unlike a traditional QWERTY keyboard, your fingers remain in the same position during typing so you're never left hunting in vain for correct finger placement.
The app's developers are quick to point out that typing Braille takes very little time to learn, and their initial studies show that it doesn't take long for users to master the system. Reading Braille, however, is much more difficult and isn't possible on a smartphone.
After a bit of practice, studies have shown that BrailleTouch users can easily average around 23 words per minute with accuracy greater than 90 percent. In short, it's a fairly speedy, reliable way to compose text-based messages no matter where you might be, so long as you have your smartphone handy. On the next page, find out exactly how the app makes texting faster and easier for just about everyone.
A Far-sighted App
BrailleTouch works differently depending on whether you install it to an Android device or an Apple device featuring iOS (Apple's mobile operating system). On the former, the app can stand in as an input keyboard across all apps that you've installed to your device. On the latter, though, it works only as a standalone app because iOS doesn't allow users to choose an alternate input keyboard.
No matter which phone you have, BrailleTouch is always ready to go to work. Most modern smartphones change the orientation of their screens so the display is right-side up, whether the phone is vertical or horizontal. Similarly, BrailleTouch autorotates to the correct position so that you can input commands no matter how you're holding the device.
Language barriers, though, could continue to be an issue for some time yet. Braille is available in all widespread languages, but the most recent release of BrailleTouch works only in English. That may change, however, as the developers continue to update the software.
Language restrictions aside, even during its development phase, the app garnered attention from major media outlets. It also won the MobileHCI (Mobile Human-Computer Interaction) 2011 Design Competition in Stockholm. The accolades and interest show that even in today's tech-saturated world, Braille may continue to help visually-impaired people communicate.
That's in spite of the increasing accuracy and speed of text-to-speech applications and the fact that less than 20 percent of the United States' visually-impaired community can read Braille fluently. What's more, the audio-feedback feature of BrailleTouch may help popularize the app with sighted users who want a different way to compose their messages.
That's not to say that BrailleTouch is great for every situation. The app's developers emphasize that their creation is not safe for use when you're behind the wheel, even if your eyes are still on the road. Writing e-mails during your morning commute is just downright dangerous, as these activities demand too many of your brain's cognitive abilities.
For stationary, automobile-less texting, BrailleTouch is an innovative, speedy app.
Flipping the Conventions
Unlike a lot of apps, BrailleTouch isn't the result of an all-night programming cram session or the fruit of a tech start-up. Instead, it was invented by researchers at Georgia Tech including Brian Frey, Mario Romero and Caleb Southern.
It was Frey (now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) who conceived the product's real breakthrough, which is that you must use BrailleTouch with the smartphone facing away from your body. The revelation occurred as Frey pondered two principle problems of smartphones -- first, the smooth, featureless screens don't provide tactile feedback for proper finger positioning. And second, it's really hard to place six fingers on the phone's screen in a comfortable, usable way.
Other software developers have released Braille apps, but they've all struggled with the same problems. Their apps typically demand that you type with just one hand, with the screen pointed toward your face. By flipping the phone, though, Frey turned a smartphone's limited real estate into an advantage. That's because, on average, a phone's screen is roughly three fingers wide. Divide that space into the six keys of a Braille typewriter, and your fingers naturally find the correct spots. There's no need for visual confirmation via the phone's screen.
Because the app uses the standard six-key system, there's virtually no learning curve. Southern says that blind users with Braille experience only need around 20 minutes to master the app and then type faster than most sighted users can enter text using a standard soft keyboard.
Southern adds that the team would love to continue improving BrailleTouch, which will hit the market in 2012, and that forthcoming smartphone hardware might play a role. If phones adopt rear touchpads (much like those on the Sony PlayStation Vita), you could feasibly use the app with the phone's screen facing you. That advantage, he said, might actually benefit sighted users more than the visually impaired.
No matter how the future of smartphone-based Braille plays out, one thing's for sure: The inventiveness and clever programming of apps like BrailleTouch help close a digital divide between sighted and blind users, letting more and more people engage and communicate no matter their disability.
Smartphones are some of the most prolific and powerful devices in the history of pocket-sized gadgets. Apps like BrailleTouch are a primary reason that smartphones are so appealing -- the software is cheap (in this case, free), the phones are relatively inexpensive, and best of all, these miniature computers empower all of us to do things that just a few years ago required the horsepower of a desktop computer.
But in the end, it's not even the elegance of the software or the efficiency of the phone's CPU that's so impressive. It's that developers keep finding new ways to help all of us, including those with significant physical limitations, share and communicate our ideas and feelings through the tools of the digital revolution.
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