BlindShell: A smartphone app for the visually impaired
Sooner or later, it will happen to us all – the world begins to lose focus, contours blur. As we age any number of problems can affect eyesight, like extreme near- or far-sightedness, glaucoma, cataracts and even blindness. Young people can be affected too due to an accident or illness. So how can we ensure that the visually impaired have equal access to mobile technology? How can we ensure they can stay connected in the digital age?
Two Czech developers and tech experts, Petr Svobodník und Daniel Novák, asked themselves these very questions after a blind user challenged them to come up with a better mobile phone solution, one that did not require a hardware keyboard. It took two years of development to complete the prototype: an app for smartphones designed to meet visually impaired users' needs. Supported by SONS, a Czech association for the blind, their product BlindShell has been field tested by blind and visually impaired users to ensure it meets all their requirements.
The Android-based app reacts to simple finger movements that the smartphone translates into commands. A long touch with one finger picks up a call, for example, while a long touch with two fingers rejects a call.
The text-to-speech function voices written text messages. In addition to the typical range of smartphone operations – making and receiving calls, writing messages, managing contacts, an alarm clock, notes and voice memos – BlindShell also has a reading app that does a good job voicing even long texts. This feature is attractive for users who used to enjoy reading. It also gives users access to Bookshare, to the world's largest online library for people with print disabilities with more than 200,000 available titles.
The app offers users a whole host of other useful features specially designed for the visually impaired, such as colour recognition, a magnifying glass, and bank note recognition. It can currently identify euros, US dollars, Czech koruna and Polish zloty.
Despite the rather extensive manual available on the website, co-founder Daniel explains how easy the app is to use for the blind and visually impaired: “The manual is very comprehensive. However, users can go to special shops and learn how to use the app. They can also simply press the power button to get help at any time.“ Perhaps unsurprisingly, the call function has proven to be the most popular. On average it takes a new user about 30-60 minutes to learn how to make and receive calls and write simple text messages.
Globally there are over 285 million visually impaired mobile phone users, around 39 million of whom are blind, so the market potential for BlindShell is huge. Thousands are already using the app. It is already available in 10 countries including Kuwait and Mexico. India and the US are the next targets for expansion.
BlindShell won a European Youth Award in the “Healthy Life” category. You can download a 15-day test version of the app to try it out.