Qualcomm Incorporated, through its Wireless Reach initiative and Project RAY Ltd, which design accessibility tools for the blind and the visually impaired, has recently announced the Ray mobile device. As per an official statement by the company, it is an always-on, easy-to-use, multi-function smartphone synchronised with audio books from Israel's Central Library for the Blind, Visually impaired and Handicapped. This collaboration sets a new standard in accessibility tools and ease of use for visually impaired people.

According to the World Health Organization, “285 million people are visually impaired worldwide: 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision…About 65 percent of all people who are visually impaired are aged 50 and older, while this age group comprises about 20 percent of the world's population. With an increasing elderly population in many countries, more people will be at risk of age-related visual impairment.”

Now a smartphone designed especially for the visually impaired

Now a smartphone designed especially for the visually impaired

Commenting on the announcement of the Ray smartphone, Qualcomm states that these days, the majority of blind and visually impaired people use simple 2G mobile phones for voice telephony only. They depend on an array of specialty devices such as audio book-readers, colour readers, navigation tools, raised Braille labels, special bar-code scanners, and large-buttoned, voice-enabled MP3 players, which are expensive. The smartphone is based on an off-the-shelf Android OS smartphone powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor. Qualcomm claims that the Project Ray device integrates the features of smartphone technology and those of these multiple specialty devices into a single, cost-effective handset with continuous mobile broadband connectivity and a user interface (UI) designed for eye-free interaction. A trial project is currently underway for testing the new system with 100 participants across Israel.

“The breakthrough UI defines a new language for human-device interaction that is built ground-up for eye-free operation,” said Boaz Zilberman, chief executive officer of Project Ray. “The user touches any position on the screen and that position becomes the starting point for selecting an audio-book, messaging or other activity. Navigation is enabled by a few simple finger movements in different directions. The phone's built-in vibration capabilities and voice prompts provide user feedback and the UI learns to adapt its behaviour based on users' preferences and usage patterns.”

The UI supports a wide range of services that include phone calls, text messaging with vocal read-out, navigation, object recognition, social network services, remote assistance, audio-book reading and other leisure and entertainment offerings.

“Audio-books, magazines and periodicals are an important method for accessing information for blind and visually impaired people, but the current system requires renting items by mail, which is not timely. Subscribers can now use RAY devices to easily access and download audio assets from the library over an advanced mobile broadband network, rather than waiting to receive CD copies,” said Amos Beer, chief executive officer of the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped. “Our library is delighted to be working with Qualcomm and Project RAY to build a system enabling people with vision impairments to remotely access and download audio assets from the library. Also, the system is being designed specifically for Project RAY devices and specific user identities to ensure digital rights management protection for copyrighted material.”

“We believe the Project RAY device will enhance the ability of blind and visually impaired people to access resources and information independently,” said Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel for Qualcomm. “This project, which is part of our Wireless Reach initiative, demonstrates one of the many ways Qualcomm technology can improve people's lives and we are proud to support this important program.”

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