New App Lets You Text Without Looking
A new smartphone and tablet app under development would let users text without ever looking at their phones. And if it takes off, it may make us all expert Braille typists in the future.
Right now, it's difficult to type on phones without looking because both on-screen and pull-out smartphone keyboards are crowded and small. The new app, originally developed for visually impaired people, shows a Braille keyboard on the screen. There are just six, gratifying large keys. Even for those who didn't learn Braille growing up, including sighted people and blind people who weren't taught Braille, typing on the app should eventually be faster than typing on phones' miniature QWERTY keyboards, said Mario Romero, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who worked on the application. Romero himself didn't know how to type in Braille before he made the app.
To use the new application, called BrailleTouch, people hold their smartphones facing away from them. They'll need to support the weight of the phone between their thumbs and pinkies, leaving their index, middle and ring fingers free for typing. Different combinations of the keys produce the letters A through Z, while gestures make spaces and punctuation marks. Recipients see alphanumeric characters, not Braille, so they don’t need to be Braille-literate. Watch the app at work here:
By playing with the app "five minutes here, five minutes there," Romero told InnovationNewsDaily, it took him about two hours of training overall to learn to type in Braille. "It wasn't painful, it was actually fun."
He's tested BrailleTouch with 19 people so far, including visually impaired people and sighted Braille instructors. He wouldn't disclose their average results, because he hopes to publish them later in a scientific journal. He did say their "star typist," an experienced Braille writer, typed 32 words per minute with 92 percent accuracy. Romero's stats are more like 10 words per minute with 80 percent to 90 percent accuracy.
Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore, Md., said they hadn't seen the app yet, so he couldn't comment specifically. "We think generally the concept is a good one," he told InnovationNewsDaily. Equipment that's available now to let people type into their smartphones with a Braille keyboard costs at least $1,800, he said.
"I haven't heard demand for this from the blind community," he said, "probably because a lot of blind people can type and also the percentage of blind people who know Braille is actually pretty low at this time. It may be as low as 10 percent." So perhaps most blind users would be in the same boat as most sighted users, when it comes to learning to type on the new software.
Even with the promise of faster, easier typing, many still might not bother to learn a new system. The common QWERTY keyboard people use now doesn't have the most efficient layout, yet better layouts have repeatedly failed to gain popularity. "QWERTY is a terrible keyboard and it stuck for 120 years," Romero said. "If I had to place a bet, I'd place it on teenagers." Teens are competitive, learn quickly, like new technology and probably would like to be able to text surreptitiously, he said.
When it comes out, BrailleTouch will be free and open-source, which means other developers can add code to improve it. It should be available on the iPhone, iPad and Android devices. It was originally slated for release this summer, but people have been so enthusiastic about it, Romero's research team is working to release it sooner. They demonstrated the app at the Abilities Expo-Atlanta on Feb. 17-19, where, Romero said, "The most typical response was, 'When can I download it?'"