Kiran Kaja looks at cellphone technology which will make them accessible to persons with visual impairments.
In the early 1990s, when mobile phones were still new, blind and visually impaired users had very little problems accessing them. The phones were large, the keys were big and making and receiving calls was easier. More importantly, mobile phones were only used for their intended purpose – conducting voice conversations.
With the rapid advancement of technology, mobile phones these days can do much more than making and receiving calls. They can send and receive text as well as multimedia messages, maintain a list of your contacts, function as organisers, let you play games and so on. But the phones are getting ever smaller, making it difficult for blind persons to identify those tiny keys on the keypad. The recent trend is camera phones, where a small digital camera is attached to the back of the phone. The captured images can be transferred onto a personal computer or shared with friends and family through e-mail or multimedia messages.
Somewhere along this evolution of mobile phone technology, the needs of persons with blindness or other disabilities have been ignored. Almost all of these exciting features in mobile phones are not accessible to blind and visually impaired users because of the absence of alternative means of screen feedback, such as speech synthesis. The first solution towards a truly accessible mobile phone was provided by Alva Access Group, an assistive technology products company based in Europe. Its M.P.O., or Mobile Phone Organizer, is a note taker with a mobile phone and a refreshable Braille display. However, with a price tag of about 4,000 U.S. dollars (or Rs. 1,80,000), it was out of reach of most users.
The real breakthrough was achieved when Nokia and a few other mobile phone manufacturers decided to extend the capabilities of some of their phone models by incorporating the Symbian operating system. Symbian is to mobile phones what Windows is to a personal computer. It is an operating system specifically designed to work on mobile phones. Symbian is light, extensible and, more importantly, offers an opportunity for third party developers to write applications which will run on these phones.
Two companies, ScanSoft and Code Factory, have developed applications that would make mobile phones running on the Symbian operating system accessible to blind and visually impaired users. The Talks software by ScanSoft and MobileSpeak by Code Factory provide speech feedback for all the mobile phone functions. Both the applications allow a blind or visually impaired person to use a mobile phone as effectively as a sighted person.
Apart from announcing the caller ID during an incoming call, the software also provides access to the call logs (missed, received and dialed numbers). One can also add, modify and dial a number from the phone book, make calendar entries and set reminders. Sending SMS messages is effortless. The software reads out the messages that you have received. All the menus and options of the phone are made accessible. If G.P.R.S. is active on your connection, you can send and receive e-mail messages as well as browse the Internet. Further, most of the Symbian phones have an MP3 player so that you can listen to music or audio files created from text. You can use Kurzweil or any other application which can generate audio files from text using a speech synthesizer to create MP3 files and transfer them to the phone. These files can then be played anytime, for example, when you are commuting to and from work. It is also possible to record voice notes and type in text notes. Finally, there are thousands of other applications that run on Symbian and extend the functionality of these phones beyond imagination. For example, there is an application which uses the phone's camera to capture the image of an object and tries to identify its colour.
Symbian phones can be broadly classified into two types – Series 60 and the Series 80. The Series 80 phones look like miniature laptops. There is a small ‘qwerty’ keyboard on these phones which can be accessed by opening up the screen. The Series 60 phones, on the other hand, have the traditional candy bar design and a normal telephone keypad. These phones are much smaller and lighter to carry around. The software that needs to be used on Series 80 phones is different from that of Series 60. As of now, only the Talks software works on the Series 80 phones.
The Series 80 phones that are compatible with the Talks software are Nokia Communicator 9210, 9210i, 9300 and 9500. The Series 60 phones that work with both Talks and Mobile Speak are Nokia 3650, 3660, 6260, 6600, 6620, 6630, 6670, 6680, 7610, Siemens SX 1, Panasonic X700 and Sendo X. There is a wide range of phones to choose from in the Series 60 category. While the Series 80 phones are more suitable for blind people because of the ‘qwerty’ keyboard, there is not much development on this platform. However, there are foldable ‘qwerty’ keyboards manufactured by Nokia and a company called ThinkOutside which can be used with any Series 60 phone. The ThinkOutside Stowaway Bluetooth Wireless keyboard is a full size ‘qwerty’ keyboard with large and firm keys. When folded, it fits into a trouser or a coat pocket. It connects to the phone wirelessly through Bluetooth technology. A Series 60 phone in combination with either Talks or Mobile Speak software and the Bluetooth wireless keyboard can function as a very good note taker.
Apart from Symbian, there are at least two other operating systems for mobile devices – Palm O.S. and Windows C.E. Devices that run on the Windows C.E. operating system developed by Microsoft are usually called Pocket P.C.s or P.D.A.s or Smart Phones. These devices have been traditionally inaccessible to blind persons primarily because they use a touch screen and a stylus for input. However, Code Factory has announced that it is in the process of developing a screen reader for these Windows C.E. based Pocket PCs and Smart Phones. The ThinkOutside Bluetooth wireless keyboard mentioned above also works with Windows C.E. devices; Code Factory has said that its product will support external ‘qwerty’ and Braille keyboards. Since the user interface of Windows C.E. is not very different from Windows on a personal computer and since most of these devices come with lighter versions of popular Office applications like Pocket Word, Pocket Excel, etc, a Windows C.E. based Smart Phone can be a very effective productivity tool if Code Factory can come up with a good screen reader. Dolphin Computer Access, the developer of Hal screen reader, has also announced that it is working on a screen reader for Windows CE devices. However, no further details are available on its product at this moment. As Windows CE has been around for some years now, there are a large number of Pocket P.C. devices and Smart Phones from leading manufacturers such as H.P. iPAQ, Dell Axim, O2 X.D.A., etc. Some of the higher-end models even have wireless networking so that users can browse the Internet on the go and connect to corporate networks without the hassle of wires.
In the near future, we are going to find that a single handheld device will be able to provide the functionality of a mobile phone, P.D.A., a music player, a digital camera, a note taker and, to some extent, a laptop. While most of these models are available in India, one can only hope that screen readers can keep pace with these rapid technological changes and improvements and provide us with the same level of access to these devices as our sighted counterparts.