Co.Design

An Interface That Allows the Blind to Text

Touchscreens have left the blind in need for a solution such as this one.

A paradox of the relentless march of technological innovation is that is has made us more dependent than ever on a distinctly ancient human resource: our eyes. Cell phones in particular increasingly eschew ISO number pads and even QWERTY keyboards for touch screens — a problem for anyone who either can't see or who texts while doing something else (driving, sitting in class, out on a terrifically bad date, etc.), which is, oh, pretty much everyone. Enter Tactile Texting.

Tactile Texting by Dutch industrial designer L.A. Guuste Hilte is a concept phone that lets you text blind. The keypad is actually a grooved disc about the size and shape of a hockey puck, and you "type" letters by running your thumb over the grooves; no eyeballs needed. A demo vid here:

Here's how the alphabet's represented in the grooves:

A "blind" trial:

Hilte designed Tactile Texting for his master's thesis at the University of Technology Eindhoven, and the prototype is a standalone device that wirelessly links up to a mobile phone. In the future, Hilte envisions a slim, almost flat model that clamps onto the back of a smartphone, so you can choose between the touch screen and the grooves, depending on your situation.

The most obvious market for this sort of thing is the blind for whom many cell phones are still woefully out of reach. (Do a quick Google search, and you'll see an assortment of available technologies, but most are quite expensive.) Legislation could change that. Congress is floating a bill that would force mobile communications companies to make smartphones accessible to sight-impaired people, from text-messaging to Web browsing. Tactile Texting isn't the sole answer — for instance, it wouldn't help you read text messages — but it could work in tandem with text-to-speech software.

The other market, of course, is people who can't get behind the wheel or walk down the street without clacking away on their phones. Here again, though, Tactile Texting isn't a perfect solution. Typing seems like it'd take forever, and as a standalone device, it's too clunky for those of us accustomed to all things Apple. And ultimately, it doesn't make the average texter any less dependent on sight. If you're driving, you still need your eyes to scan a text — and, more importantly, to navigate the road.

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