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Technology | A new app highlights smartphone and tablet possibilities for the blind

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

A blind couple in England is proving you don't need eyesight to enlist in the smartphone revolution.

Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds, both blind since childhood and now gray-haired, founded in 2006 a nonprofit called Screenreader.net to help the blind stay connected to family, friends, and news in a fast-paced world. Their latest project, which they helped design and test, is an Android phone app called "Georgie" (named after Margaret's first guide dog). To use Georgie, a person with poor or no eyesight need only run a finger across the screen: The phone audibly speaks button functions or contact list names. The user can send a text or publish a blog post simply by talking. The phone's camera can tell the user what color shirt he's about to put on, or it can scan a sign, restaurant menu, or printed letter and read it aloud.

Since Georgie uses GPS, a blind user can plan out sidewalk routes. "An overhead branch to us is dangerous," Roger says in a promo video. "As I walk along, I get [swiped] on the head, or in the face or the nose." Roger has marked branch locations on his regular routes using Georgie, and now his phone alerts him when he approaches one. The app can also tell Roger when to get off a bus, or where to find a nearby restaurant. Should he take a wrong turn, Georgie has an "Assistance" button that alerts a family member or caretaker to his location.

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In the United States, federal telecommunications law requires mobile phone manufacturers to make devices accessible to the more than 11 million blind and visually impaired Americans. Android phones, the iPhone, and iPad have built-in or downloadable screen readers that allow the blind to navigate menu lists, emails, and websites-sometimes clumsily. (Amazon's Kindle Fire e-reader doesn't, and earned a denunciation last year from the American Council of the Blind.) Georgie has the advantage of pulling together several vision-free functions in one simple-to-use interface. At 149 British pounds (about $230), it's expensive-and premium features cost extra.

Soon, tablet computers could offer their own advantages: Last year researchers at Stanford University created an experimental app that would allow the blind to write and take notes in Braille, using a tablet computer. Lying flat, the tablet touch screen mimics the eight keys of a traditional Braille typewriter, and the keys automatically arrange themselves beneath the user's fingers as soon as she touches the screen. Such an app would almost certainly be a money saver: Other electronic Braille note-taking devices cost $1,000 to $7,000.

Stop order

Tomm L/iStock

Along with anti-lock brakes and airbags, automatic brakes could be the next standard auto safety feature. Beginning in 2014, the European Union will require new passenger vehicles to have autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems if they want to earn Europe's five-star safety rating. Autonomous braking uses a windshield-mounted camera to detect other cars or pedestrians ahead. If the driver is approaching too quickly, the system applies the brakes automatically, avoiding or reducing impact. One study found that AEB systems reduced collisions by 27 percent. They can increase the car price by $2,000 or more. - Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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