For a long time, smartphones and touchscreens were of little use to the visually impaired. But chips embedded in signs and information boards are now helping them use mobile devices and orient themselves.
Anyone with a smartphone knows that it's more than just a device for making calls and sending messages. It's a notebook, a calender, a mailbox - a bridge to the Web. That's why a lot of people feel lost when they lose or forget their smartphone. But few of us realize what life is like for people who have been excluded from using this technology. Visually impaired people find it close to impossible to use smartphones because they don't have a keypad. But that could change.
Smartphones and other mobile devices could become indispensable for the visually impaired as well. Since most smartphones come with voice input and output software, developers are creating apps that are tailored to the needs of the visually impaired. Erich Thurner, who is legally blind, uses a smartphone every morning to help him find clothes that match. He scans it over labels in t-shirts and jumpers to get the information that is sewn into garments. A monotone female computer voice provides information that most people often take for granted: "t-shirt, yellow, short-sleeved" or "jeans, blue, stone-washed," it says.
Erich Turner, together with his colleagues, created "Mindtags" - a technology that transforms the clothes in his quiet wardrobe into speaking garments. They used Near Field Communication (NFC), which was originally made for cashless payments with mobile phones.
"I just have to hold my telephone over the transponder chip and it will debit a euro, say, for a cola," Erich Thurner explains.
When a smartphone recognizes a particular transponder, it sends a signal to the chip, which then sends the information stored on it back to the phone. With an Internet connection, additional information stored on a server, can also be accessed. The NFC transponder works like a barcode on a packet of noodles. But unlike a checkout scanner at the supermarket, which reads the black bars to get information, the phone can also turn text into sound using Mindtags.
The chips are an advantage for the visually impaired because they can be easily felt as stickers, buttons or smartcards - be it on on CDs, books or packaging for medication. "They are extremely helpful in the medicine cabinet because you only get the name of the product in Braille on the packet, but you never the product description or the expiration date or dosage," says Thurner.
Experiencing an exhibition through sound
Mindtags is more than a digital way of telling people what is in their wardrobe or medicine cabinet. At the "Quia testis - 2000 meters of German history" exhibition, a project at Berlin's now defunct Tempelhof Airport , visitors will have the opportunity to listen to information on the boards from this spring. NFC chips on the boards will turn smartphones into storytellers - even playing the sounds of "Raisin Bombers," aircraft that brought food and coal during the Berlin Blockade.
And at just one euro a piece, the technology is attractive for museums because it is relatively inexpensive. It could be used as a cheap way of raising the number of visitors coming to the museum. Social scientist Regine Franken-Wendelsdorf is in involved in a research project for Berlin's Pergamon Museum. She would like to see films, interviews and specials offered to the visually impaired via their tmartphones or tablet PCs using this simple radio technology.
"Visitors could, for example, be standing in front of the Ishtar Gate [a city gate from ancient Babylon at the Pergamon museum] and learn about how it was excavated. They could check out an animated film of how the gate functioned in its original location," says Regina Franken-Wendelsdorf.
The technology offers the possibility to go beyond the realms of traditional text panels and audio guides. For example, museum visitors can download the information onto their phones and listen to it later.
Mapping the urban jungle
Thorsten Bräuer from Friends of the Blind believes that this technology could be used to help the visually impaired navigate cities. They could scan electronic stickers on poles to get street names, find out about nearby sights, or even the quickest way to train and bus stations. "This would allow them to navigate their own environments more independently," he said.
And supermarkets can also use the technologies, Bräuer adds: "Imagine the supermarket has a chip outside with all the special offers on it, so the customer can decide whether to go in and if the offers are worthwhile. But you can also get information for every product."
But before the chips reach that stage, Mindtags still has to overcome a few hurdles. The NFC chips aren't recognizable or easily found, and they only work from a distance of four centimetres. Gaining access to more complex data requires a good Internet connection. But cheap mobile Internet services are not available everywhere. Thurner, who developed Mindtags, remains confident that these problems are easier to solve than the ones that the visually impaired have to overcome everyday.