A tactile screen based smartphone for blind users.
Rolex Young Laureate
4 Engineers, 1 Doctor, 1 Designer, 2 Researchers
Advancement of our phones have given us superpowers. Things we take for granted, like gps, video chat, face and voice recognition, were dreams of science fictions of yesteryears. Unfortunately, these features are not equally accessible for visually impaired users, and this gap is ever widening.
There are 285 Million visually impaired people in the world, of which 39 Million are blind. Alarmingly, 15 million of them are from India. Out of 39, about 19 million are under 15 years of age, and 1.4 million suffer from irreversible blindness. For a blind person, about 10 productive years are lost due to adulthood blindness.The average age of a child who goes blind is estimated to be 8 years in India, and the expected life expectancy is 42 years. 10% of the productive time is lost of a family member taking care of a blind person.
Rehabilitation of the blind into the society with the use of technology is of paramount importance. There are many electronic assistive devices available in the market that enable rehabilitation of certain processes in life. With limited capabilities, retrofitted designs and exorbitant prices, the assistive technologies need to take a fresh approach to create an impact. The blind and the visually impaired are in a unique position to appreciate and make functional use of haptic devices. Braille Phone is a milestone innovation in this context.
The Braille Phone is a unique innovation. It envisions a unique tactile screen that is made up of grid of pixels which can rise up from surface of the screen. In a typical screen these pixels change colors, which a blind user cannot comprehend. The "height" movement, however, makes every bit of information "touchable". The screen, as an array of pixels, can display shapes, images, characters, Braille and animations. For a non-sighted this display can be metaphorised as a sculpture in a world of paintings (touchscreen phones). Tactile also happens to be more "private" medium as compared to visual and audio interfaces which can easily be snooped upon.
As the ubiquitous smartphones of the day, Braille Phone provides access to all features. Instead of using visual display, it relies on tactile screen as an interface. Along with the screen, the UX is seamlessly designed for easy usage with touch-only UI. Non-sighted users have access to all features of smartphone such as phone calling, messaging, organiser, maps, music, email etc.
Apart from standard features, the phone also converts visuals information to tactile. It is useful for scenarios such as text to tactile, image to tactile, skype video to tactile or even tactile translation for face-to-face conversations. This interface helps visually impaired users to not only be equally empowered as their sighted peers. but also have some novel superpowers of their own.
This interface is futuristic and novel. It requires extensive user research to gauge learning curve and intuitiveness of the interface. More importantly, it was imperative of us to co-create with users in an iterative manner.
However, before starting on the product iterations, we concentrated on ethnographic understanding of blind users in India. We partnered with LVPEI, Saksham Trust and NAB in India and National Braille Press in Boston to conduct these studies. We understood user's routines, comforts, pain points, affinities, technology touchpoints. We also understood their spatial perception, movement, ergonomic preferences, object recognition and reaction times.
Over two years, we met with 300+ users from tier 1,2 and 3 sections of society.
Through these studies we also came up with set of design principles for interfaces for visually impaired:
Technology played a defining role in this project. The tactile interface turned out to be exceptionally challenging technologically, and it remains so even today. We worked on fundamentally different set of technologies to create proof of concept prototypes. In parallel, we printed 3d models for validation with users.
To create actuated surface of the screen and that too at nanoscale, we experimented with Piezoelectric Cells, Shape Memory alloys, MEMS, Electro active polymers, bubble jets, eink display and actuated liquids. We preferred Piezoelectric cells for our production level prototypes.