Eyes-free texting could aid visially impaired

Posted by Kate Taylor

Braille could become the new craze at school, thanks to a new app that lets people text without looking - leaving teachers in the dark about messages flying around the class.

More importantly, it could be a breakthrough for the blind and visually impaired.

"Research has shown that chorded, or gesture-based, texting is a viable solution for eyes-free written communication in the future, making obsolete the need for users to look at their devices while inputting text on them," says Mario Romero of Georgia Tech.

The free open-source app, called BrailleTouch, is based on the Braille writing system - and early studies with visually impaired Braille users have demonstrated that users can write at least six times faster than with other eyes-free texting systems.

iPhone users can reach up to 32 words per minute with 92 percent accuracy, says the team.

"BrailleTouch is an out-of-the-box solution that will work with smartphones and tablets and allow users to start learning the Braille alphabet in a few minutes," says Romero. "It also reduces the need for expensive proprietary Braille keyboard devices, which typically cost thousands of dollars."

For sighted users, the research team is exploring how BrailleTouch could be a universal eyes-free mobile texting app that replaces soft QWERTY keyboards and other texting technologies.

The app uses a gesture-based solution by turning the iPhone’s touchscreen into a soft-touch keyboard programmed for Braille - and requiring only six keys.

The keyboard fits on the screen and allows users tokeep their fingers in a relatively fixed position while texting, making looking at the screen unnecessary.

The team's already developed iPhone and iPad versions of BrailleTouch, and is currently working on an Android version.

The downside, though, must be that there's no way of reading a text without looking, unless the user uses some sort of text-to-speech app - and that might be a bit of a giveaway in class.