I have memories of watching a visually-impaired girl struggle to survive in a small town in northern India more than 15 years ago. She spent most of her days cooped up in the house. Only went out with her mother once a fortnight to buy groceries. She hardly played and she never ventured out of the house alone. The only time I saw her smile was when she was playing / learning with a much-used abacus. How I wish I could reconnect with her to see how progress in technology has helped her integrate into society today.
I remembered the girl as I read about Google latest foray in technology with two new mobile phone apps to help the blind navigate their way around. WalkyTalky is a voice activated navigational android app that announces a location as the visually impaired person walks by it. What makes it different from other navigation apps is that it will also announce the names of street addresses and other landmarks along the way to help keep the user their bearings. Intersection Explorer, a bit more sophisticated than WalkyTalky, it allows the visually impaired person to learn the directions before leaving home. Using a touch interface the app announces the direction in which the “walker” is headed as well as the distance traveled. So that you are prepared with mental directions even before stepping out of your home.
Nokia also recently announced a new mobile application called ThinkContacts. This amazing app allows a disabled person to select a contact from a list and place a phone call to that person using only their mind. The only drawback – if you can call it that! – is that it is developed for Nokia’s N900 Maemo platform. ThinkContacts works with an accompanying headset that reads the user’s brainwaves to measure attention levels. If the level is more than 70%, the software scrolls to the next contact in the list. If the attention level is more than 80%, the software makes a phone call to the selected contact.
A major challenge is how do the visually impaired know about these technologies? Well, in Qatar at least, they can visit Mada, Qatar Assistive Technology Center, a non-profit that provides Assistive Technology Solutions for people with disabilities. And hopefully, Google and others in the mobile technology area will continue to research and develop devices, apps and software that make the visually impaired more and more independent.