boazzilberman
Mobile Communications

Project Ray: Israeli ecosystem for the global blind

According to the World Health Organisation, there are around 39 million people in the world who are blind, and a further 246 million with low vision. For many, the smartphone revolution is a change that has passed them by. But there are some devices and apps tailored to the needs of the visually impaired. Project Ray is one such design.

The Israel-based company has designed a custom Operating System – Ray OS – with a specially designed UI and apps including messaging, navigation, audio books/magazines, and remote assistance if needed. As well as Ray OS being available on the Google Play store, it also comes pre-loaded on the company’s G1 and N5 smartphones. So far around 10,000 use Project Ray phones and apps worldwide.

We talked to Project Ray CEO Boaz Zilberman, also founder of mobile video chat startup Fring, on designing devices for the visually impaired, how new technologies are creating new opportunities and whether other technology companies are doing enough to support these users.

What’s the history of the company?
The founders of Project Ray have a long record in mobile and high-tech development. About three years ago, the CEO of the Israeli Library for the Blind, who is blind himself, asked us to help him to migrate from physical distribution of audio CDs to digital distribution over the net. During this volunteering work, we identified that the best solution is based on smartphones and we set up to build an easy to use mobile application for the blind. In doing so we identified a unique interface concept that enabled eye-free interface to any touch-based device, patented it, and built a complete platform that hosts a range of additional apps useful for the community.

What special requirements do the visually impaired have from a smartphone and how do you work these into any devices/software you develop?
The first and most important requirement is to provide an easy-to-use interface on a flat, glassy surface of the smart device. Our solution to this is the patented eye-free interface concept we set that is built on two main principals. Firstly, your interface choices are automatically arranged around your touch-point. And secondly, the interface is built with three common screens – menu selection, item selection and command selection.

Other than that they are looking for the standard mix of utilities we all need – messaging, communications, picture taking - although it seems odd. The real benefit comes when you use smartphone capabilities to drive non-trivial applications like currency identification, item recognition using image processing, and (something we push strongly) remote visual assistance by family members.

Which apps/services do your customers use/appreciate most?
Messages of all kind. Mainly because this is the one major capability that was available but inaccessible to them in their previous (simple) mobile device.

The smartphone industry is a very competitive industry, but is the same true for your market?
Not enough – we are looking for more players and competitors that can help us build market awareness. The surprising fact is that the most difficult competition we face is the simple feature phone. Our top problem is to convince a greater number of people to move from good-old-habits and their comfort-zone to start using advanced technologies and learn new things.

Is there much profit to be made in making niche hardware/software such as the N5 & Ray OS?
We look at Project Ray as a social business that should be profitable enough to sustain itself. Once volume goes up there is enough margin to sustain ongoing operation for the company. In general however, it seems as if there is not much business for niche players like us since a right mix of specialised applications can make any smart device into a special tool.

Do you employ any visually impaired workers?
Yes. All of our QA, customer support and sales people around the world are blind.

Are other tech/software companies doing enough to help make sure everyone gets the best out of new technologies?
“Enough” is impossible to achieve but I think that in general, there is awareness for the need to provide adequate solutions for the disabled. Apple is an example of a company that set out to make its interface accessible and set an example for others to follow. Microsoft has done the same on the PC and contributes for the community a free screen reading tool for personal computers. And I should also mention Qualcomm.

What was Qualcomm’s involvement in Project Ray?
Qualcomm contributed financial resources through its wireless-reach program and continue with marketing and business support which helps us to push the service around the globe.

You’re launching your own Smartwatch – what sort of opportunities & challenges does wearable tech present?

It is a new venture for us. The drive is coming from blind users’ preference to keep their hands free as a protection in the event of accidental fall - which happens frequently. Our goal is to enable them to keep the phone in the pocket and keep full control over it when going out in the street.

Do you see personal assistant apps such as Siri or Cortana as rivals to what you are doing?
We augment our gesture-based interface with voice recognition services using “Google Now” technology. However, to date, such technology is not accurate and predictable enough to enable a simple well defined interface. Although it seems like a natural fit, most of the techy blind users who have the iPhone and Siri, don’t use voice commands as their interface of choice.

What are your thoughts on the concept of a Braille smartphone?
There are a few miss-conceptions about blind people and one of them is that the blind know braille. Actually, less than 10% of blind people can read and write braille. Most blind people today, 65% and up, are people who lost their site at [the] elder age, 45 years and above. They don’t have the sensory substation and the patience to learn braille. More important however is that a special device for the blind does not make sense economically because it is way too expensive to build and maintain over time.

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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