In many surprising ways touchscreen smartphones have capabilities that can help visually impaired people to use them in convenient ways. There are various apps out there that do specific tasks, but BlindShell is an app that feels like an entire operating system designed for the blind. We had a chance to try using a BlindShell powered phone and here are our thoughts on this novel product.
The BlindShell phone was a Samsung Galaxy Core 2 and came with a charger and in-ear headphones with a built-in mic. The device powers up within a few seconds and the first thing you hear is “Call. One of eight.” That means you can either select to call someone or go to the next of the eight items in the main menu. Holding onto the center of the screen selects the item you’re currently on and then you go to the call menu and so on. Simply holding two fingers on the screen gets you back up the menu. This is actually pretty easy and if you’re used to the menus, you can go through them in seconds to do what you want. One of the options is “information about state,” which will give you the time and date, the phone’s battery charge, carrier you’re using, how strong the cellular signal is, and whether you’re on WiFi.
There are few really useful other apps that can be used within BlindShell, such as a currency identifier, alarm, voice recorder, book reader, color indicator, and calculator. Each one is fairly intuitive to use. The banknote recognition app couldn’t tell our dollars, but the phone came from the Czech Republic so it’s probably better with Czech korunas and euros. Seems like it should also have a camera feature so that blind people can take a picture of something and ask a friend or family member to identify next time they meet. Wherever you are in the operating system, you can simply hold down the power button for about a second and you’ll receive voice instructions on how to use the app that you’re in. Apparently the new iteration of the app that just came out also has a full manual as the last option on the main menu.
A note on entering text. It’s kind of like using SMS with cell phones back in the 90’s: You hold one finger on the screen and touch with another finger N times and it goes to the item that is in Nth place in the list. For example, when you want to write ‘a’ you hold one finger on key 2 (abc) and tap other finger anywhere on the screen once. Then you release the first finger. If you want to write ‘b’ you hold one finger on key 2 (ABC) and tap other finger twice. It takes a bit of getting used to, but the main thing is remembering which letters go with which keys and being careful to click where the buttons are.
We used all the main features of BlindShell without looking at the screen and have to say the system was very intuitive. It works fast, reads the options pretty fast, and has clearly been designed with the help of people who will themselves benefit from this technology. It’s available in English, Spanish, German, Swedish, and now Arabic versions, and more will be coming out. There are also plans to release BlindShell in two versions: Easy and Pro, one having basic features and the other one designed more for power users.
As far as issues with the app, it crashed once on us, which might present a problem for someone who can’t see the underlying Android interface. Launching the app again popped us back into the now familiar BlindShell interface.
Overall it’s a pretty impressive tool for visually impaired people to use a smartphone like the rest of the public. It combines many tools and devices that are already being used by blind people into one easy to use interface, and adds a lot more. Plus, the app is continuing to be developed and because it can integrate other apps there’s potential for a lot more that BlindShell will be able to do in future releases. We can certainly recommend it to anyone blind or with limited who wants to use a phone and all the smart features it comes with.
Product page: BlindShell…