By John D. Sutter
(CNN) — If Mario Romero has his way, we’ll all be learning Braille soon.
The post-doc researcher at Georgia Tech University has co-developed an app, called BrailleTouch, that could help blind people send text messages and type e-mails on touch-screen smartphones without the need for expensive, extra equipment.
To use the app, people hold their phones with the screens facing away from them and punch combinations of six touch-screen buttons to form characters. The app speaks a letter aloud after it’s been registered, so there’s no need to see the screen.
The system is designed for blind and visually impaired people, who otherwise have to purchase thousand-dollar machines or cumbersome “hover-over” (more on that later) keyboards to be able to type on no-button smartphones. But Romero sees a spin-off for the technology: The touch-screen Braille keyboard is so fast that sighted people may start using it, too.
“It may be a solution for everybody to get their eyes off their phone so they can walk and text or watch TV and make a comment on a blog,” he said by phone. “It may free the sighted people’s eyes” and help visually impaired people to type more easily.
The free app, which is being developed for Apple iOS and Google Android devices, should be available in a matter of weeks, he said.
So far, the app has only undergone limited tests, and Romero declined to make a pre-release version available to CNN. In an 11-person trial, however, he said, some Braille typists were able to go faster than they could on standard, QWERTY keyboards. One visually impaired person, who was already familiar with Braille (you punch the six keys in various combinations to make letters) typed at a rate of 32 words per minute, Romero said, with 92% accuracy. Romero himself, who never had used a Braille keyboard before, was able to type at about 25 words per minute with 100% accuracy after a week of practice, he said.
The app will undergo more rigorous testing before it’s released, said Romero, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the university’s School of Interactive Computing. It was developed with the help of Brian Frey, Gregory Abowd, James Clawson and Kate Rosier.
Smartphones are generally pretty good at reading material on their screens to people who have vision problems, he said, but it’s usually difficult to enter text on the devices. To get a sense of what it’s like for a blind person to use an iPhone you can go to Settings >> General >> Accessibility, and turn the “VoiceOver” feature on. When you touch a menu item, the iPhone reads the text aloud in a computerized voice. To select something on the screen, you double-tap that item. To scroll, you use three fingers.
All that works well, Romero said, but typing on an iPhone without buttons is a pain. Another alternative, he said, is attaching a hardware Braille keyboard to a smarpthone, but those are difficult to carry and are expensive:
“The options (blind people) have right now are either too expensive and cumbersome or too slow. Virtual keyboards and soft keyboards – like Apple’s voice-over keyboard – are too slow. Or they have options to get hardware that costs several thousand dollars.”
The new app may not alleviate all of those problems. On Android phones, the BrailleTouch app can be programmed in as the phone’s standard keyboard. Because of restrictions on iOS, he said, that can’t happen on an iPhone, so people who want to use the BrailleTouch keyboard have to open the app, type into a text document and then copy-paste that into an e-mail or text message.
Romero admits that this app isn’t the end-all-be-all in typing. But it’s helping create a future, as he said, when “one day we’re not slaves to the screens.”