Cellphones in the Service of the Blind

With Project Ray, an Israeli entrepreneur hopes to marshal the power of modern smartphones to help the blind become more independent.

TechIsrael Staff ,

Israel News Photo: Morguefile

Smartphones are getting more powerful by the day. Upgraded and expanded hardware provide us with more powerful cameras, better GPS systems, more sensitive sensors, and much more. These tools provide us with a better, more interesting, and more exciting user experience – whether we use them for playing games, texting, driving, and so on. Most of us could live without these tools, but they're nice to have.

But for others – like the visually-impaired – these tools are more than just fun; they can actually help make them more independent and self-sufficient.  The GPS, accelerometers, cameras, compasses, touch-screens, light sensors and other features of top-grade smartphones are good enough to provide navigation and other assistance even to those who can't see, those whose vision is so impaired they can't get around without help.

That's the idea behind Project Ray, a project started about a year ago by Michael Vakulenko,  Boaz Zilberman, and Arik Siegel, all three well-known players in Israel's cellphone industry. The objective is to develop a series of cellphone apps that will allow blind people to navigate their surroundings as independently as possible, and provide them with access to entertainment, information, and all the other things the sighted take for granted.

For example, one Project Ray app will help blind people find their way when they are outside. The app will check the user's location using GPS and announce exactly where they are -  street address, intersection, etc. - and what direction they are going in. Another app is designed to ensure that blind people take the proper medication at the right time; using the phone's camera, a user can scan the label of a bottle, and the phone, matching the information on the label to its database, will read out the name of the medication and when it is supposed to be taken.

In addition to apps that can help blind people make their way through life more easily, Project RAY will help users order and listen to audiobooks – often the only entertainment blind people have.  “A blind person is extremely dependent on the library – it is often their main source of entertainment and information, and the current system supplying blind users with audiobooks is inefficient and often frustrating, to say the least,” Vakulenko says. Instead of the braille books that are shipped by mail – and are subject to shipping errors, getting lost in the mail, etc. - users will be able to download audiobooks immediately over the internet from an audiobook library, without the hassle and the wait.

The first Project Ray apps will be available next year, says Vakulenko, who is enthusiastic about being able to use technology to help those in need. Project Ray, he says, was “designed from ground up for the needs of blind people, along with the innovative use of sensors and cloud connectivity, blind people around the world can live with an unprecedented degree of independence.”