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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Meet Georgie, a Smartphone for the Blind

It’s designed by a blind husband-and-wife team.

  • July 20, 2012

There’s a new smartphone interface designed especially for the blind, reports the BBC. Powered by Android, the suite of applications are “designed by the blind and visually impaired, for the blind and visually impaired,” as Glenn Tookey, the CEO of Sight and Sound Technology, the company behind Georgie, explains.

In some ways Georgie is like Siri, in the way that a virtual personal assistant is central to the experience. But there are loads of features that are either unique to Georgie, or have been given new pride of place in the interface. There’s optical character recognition, so you can hold your camera up to a sign or menu and have it read it back to you. There’s an assistance button you can press in case of an emergency, alerting a family member to your location. There’s even an option for you to use GPS to teach the phone trouble spots–just where on that path that branch dinged you the other day.

It “gives people that independence, and the dignity that comes from being independent,” says Roger Wilson-Hinds, who designed Georgie with his wife Margaret. (Georgie is named, in fact, for Margaret’s first seeing-eye dog.) You can buy a Georgie-specific phone for £299 (UK market only for now, it would seem), or if you already have a Droid, you can by the software for £149.

The BBC has a quote from the “principal manager for digital accessibility at the Royal National Institute for Blind People,” saying that research shows that blind and partially-sighted people “struggle with complexity of today’s smartphone technology,” and that he appreciates Georgie for its “easy-to-use and accessible manner.” I find this quote particularly interesting, because he singles out smartphones’ complexity–not the fact that they are a primarily visual technology. When I watched the video on Georgie, I began to wonder whether it might finally be the smartphone I have long been looking for for my grandmother, who has no digital experience whatsoever (she can’t even type, having somehow never learned to use a typewriter). Georgie’s interface appears to be so simple and intuitive that I suspect my Grammy could use it–and makes me wonder why there aren’t more interfaces like this that put an extreme, bare-bones simplicity at a premium.

The mobile computing revolution holds much promise for the blind and visually impaired–take, for instance, this tablet for the blind I wrote about last year. But Georgie overlooks one feature of touchscreens that make them particularly difficult for the blind to use–their physical smoothness. To that end, Georgie (or Android manufacturers) may eventually want to pair up with Tactus, a company that allows smartphones to essentially morph into a physical keyboard, using a special type of oil that can harden into buttons. (Georgie’s apparent stop-gap solution is a clever one–when you tap an icon, it reads out to you just which icon you pressed; hold it a bit longer to confirm your selection.) Other companies like Senseg are also experimenting with the field of “haptics,” or touch, in mobile computing.

For a look at further products from Sight and Sound, including a £3,995 Braille notetaker (with some smartphone-like features built-in), check out the company’s site.

Georgie’s definitely cheaper–and seems more useful, too.

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