For several years now, tech companies have built products for mainstream users but with changing landscape, the companies are looking for new ways to help people with disability. Microsoft recently introduced its accessibility-focused Xbox Adaptive Controller, which brings custom control scheme. While Apple and Google offer text-to-speech translation on their mobile operating system, Alibaba has designed a smart screen that could help the visually impaired more than conventional accessibility programs.
In a joint effort with China’s Tsinghua University, Alibaba‘s $15 billion R&D initiative named Damo Academy, has devised a new way to improve smartphone experience for the blind. The company has designed a smart screen that is essentially a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens. According to TechCrunch, the silicone sheet costs RMB 0.25 (around Rs 3) each to produce.
The plastic film which sits on top of the smartphone screen features three mini buttons on each side. These buttons are sensory-enabled, which means pressing them will trigger certain commands, and will usually be mapped to something that user frequently uses like “go back” and “confirm”.
The feature is being tested with a limited number of users and Li Mengqi, who is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the tech says “It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on.” For years, Mengqi has relied on screen readers to shop, WeChat her friends and go out alone by using iPhone’s compass but she says the technology can be overwhelming when apps like e-commerce platforms, which have busy interfaces.
The inclusion of button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking, and the need for complex screen interactions. The smart touch functionality provided by the plastic film is powered by human-machine interaction, the technology that also powers voice control devices.
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The smart touch is not just for fingers, but also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This allows them to listen to text quickly in public without having the need to beam it through a speaker or headphone. The report mentions that the smart touch functionality works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay.
Alibaba’s research wing Damo does not plan to monetize the initiative. “The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch.