Eyes-free iPhone texting with BrailleTouch app
GEORGIA TECH (US) — A prototype app for touch-screen mobile devices is vying to be a complete solution for texting without the need to look at a mobile gadget’s screen.
“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, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the project’s principal investigator.
The free open-source app, called BrailleTouch, incorporates the Braille writing system used by the visually impaired. It has been conceived as a texting tool for any of the millions of smartphone phone users worldwide.
Early studies with visually impaired participants proficient in Braille typing have demonstrated that users can input at least six times the number of words per minute when compared to other research prototypes for eyes-free texting on a touch screen. Users reach up to 32 words per minute with 92 percent accuracy with the prototype app for the iPhone.
“We are currently designing a study to formally evaluate BrailleTouch through both quantitative and qualitative methods,” says Caleb Southern, a graduate student at Georgia Tech. “We will measure the typing speed and accuracy of visually impaired users and capture the feedback from study participants in areas such as comfort, ease of use, and perceived value.”
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.
“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.”
The researchers have designed BrailleTouch to address the limitations of soft keyboards, which do not provide tactile feedback, as well as physical keyboards, which often use small and numerous fixed buttons. BrailleTouch is the only iPhone app in existence that uses a six-finger chording process that replicates the traditional Braille keyboard.
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, making it a practical solution for the limited screen real estate on smartphones.
The key feature of the BrailleTouch technology is the use of the six-key configuration so that the keyboard fits on the screen and users keep their fingers in a relatively fixed position while texting. This design allows users to hold their device with the screen facing away from them—cradling the device with their palms or pinkies and thumbs—and to type with a majority of their fingers, identical to typing Braille on a standard keyboard.
The research group has developed iPhone and iPad versions of BrailleTouch and is currently working on Android versions. The app recently won the MobileHCI 2011 competition for design at the MobileHCI conference in Stockholm, Sweden.
This project was supported in part by the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies, which is funded by the US Department of Education.
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