When members of the blind community petition the National Federation of the Blind about cell phones, they repeatedly ask for two things: a mobile phone that's easy to use, and audiobooks.
So says Odin Mobile, a new mobile network catering to the visually impaired. The Huawei Vision, Odin Mobile's star of the show at launch, promises to deliver both of those most-wanted attributes as soon as July -- and then some.
Less important than the coincidentally named and preexisting Huawei Vision debut device is the modified operating system that's loaded onto the Android phone. Called Project Ray, or Ray for short, the OS combines gestures with audio feedback in a way that helps sight-impaired customers navigate around.
For example, let's say you're in the dialer. Anywhere you place your finger on the touch display becomes the 5 button, the center of the dialpad. Based on that orientation, owners slide their finger on the display, lifting to select when the audio feedback reads out their desired number. This is a typical behavior for cell phone interfaces for visually impaired users, said Boaz Zilberman, Project Ray's founder (also the man who brought you Fring for mobile).
What's unique about Ray, though, is that the same general format for getting around applies across the entire OS, bringing a consistent, logical navigation to people who can't rely on sight to course-correct. For instance, when looking for the Audible audiobooks app, a Ray phone owner would slide their finger around the screen until they light upon their selection.
The OS has a few different navigation paradigms that either surface activity options in a ring around your finger placement, or as a vertical list you can peruse above or below the starting point, as with your contact list. Multitouch navigation can move through the list faster. If that doesn't sound as simple as promised, Odin Mobile will give new Huawei Vision customers a personalized over-the-phone walk-through of the Visions' navigation and features.
Voice recognition is another way to get around, but at this point, it only applies to some apps. You can say a contact name to dial right away, for example, or name an e-book title, though Ray doesn't yet support a digital assistant like Apple's Siri.
"It is not mature enough right now," Zilberman said about voice actions, citing their ability to accurately process complex commands. "Most blind people don't use it." That said, people who own Ray phones built on existing Android devices can switch out of the Ray walled garden to use Android however they please, voice assistance included.
What about the apps?
Part of Project Ray's purpose in creating a cell phone interface for low-vision and blind people is building up a useful app environment. A few, like apps that use the phone's built-in camera to identify color and differentiate among bank notes, are particular to the blind community.
CEO Zilberman points to Qualcomm's augmented reality API as the driving force behind these two apps. Instead of having to buy separate optical devices or download apps that do the same, Project Ray phones have these tools built in.
In addition to helping out with money and matching, the OS also supports a robust audiobook library, along with magazine and newspaper subscriptions. Access to music and streaming Internet radio also play a role, with podcast subscriptions a few months away.
Ray phones have alarms, GPS location readout, texting, and text-to-speech readout. Remote backup keeps contact lists intact, and like most smartphones, there are tools to help track down lost or stolen phones. Ray also includes emergency contact dial-out for peace of mind.
What are the prospects?
From the point of view of a complete community outsider (me), Project Ray, Odin Mobile, and the Ray-loaded Huawei Vision phone sound like a worthwhile way to use technology for good.
I'm interested in seeing just how intuitive the Ray navigation is, and if there are enough applications to lure visually impaired individuals away from other smartphones with accessibility settings and apps, like the iPhone.
Admittedly, I'm no expert in this field, but I do know that the Huawei Vision isn't a top-flight phone by today's standards, and I wonder how compelling that experience will be. On the other hand, Odin Mobile General Manager Robert Felgar says that the Vision is a good choice, stating that a silent majority of non-techy blind users want something simple and practical over paying for a pricey smartphone they then have to modify to their needs.
There are 6 million Americans who consider themselves visually impaired, even with corrective lenses, Odin Mobile's Felgar said, so the market for accessible smartphones certainly exists.
I'll have more specifics and impressions to share when we get a Huawei Vision with Ray here in the office using Odin Mobile's new network.