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Screenreader Georgie: Hands on with the mobile phone app for the blind

Software & AppsFeatures
by Rob Kerr
, 30 Jul 2012Features
Screenreader Georgie: Hands on with the mobile phone app for the blind

ITProPortal recently attended the launch of the mobile phone application for the blind, called Georgie. This is an overlay to the Google Android operating system. It has been designed to help the day-to-day life of the two million people in the UK that live with sight loss.

The app runs on Android 2.2 Foyo, 2.3 Gingerbread and 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It enables the visually impaired to do things that many of us take for granted. These include easily finding out where you are, reading printed text, catching buses, using Twitter and even taking a picture.

The app essentially provides an interface for several features of Android and other apps, for its target audience. These include Google's TalkBack text-to-voice app that is used to deliver audio for every function of Georgie; and SpeechSynthesis for voice dictation. It also uses the phone's built-in compass and GPS, while relying on a data connection to bring in requested information.

Anyone using Georgie doesn't need to dive in and out of various apps or functions of the phone. As all of the commonly used features of a mobile are presented in an easy-to-use GUI for the visually impaired.

Screenreader.net

Georgie has been developed by a not-for-profit social enterprise company called Screenreader.net, that also distributes the PC-based screenreader, Thunder, (made by Sensory Software Ltd for the company). This is a free application that runs on Windows 7, Vista and XP. It provides voice-guidance to various aspects of the operating system for those who have sight loss. Thousands of blind people download and use the software every month. It also has support for 11 different languages.

For example, a limited or non-sighted person can use a browser to search websites, send and receive emails, fill in forms and even pay bills – with an audio description for every step of the way. There is a user base of among 2-400,000 poorly sighted people that can now use the Internet for the first time.

The know-how behind all this has been brought across to the mobile phone world, in the shape of the Georgie app.

Georgie

The app has taken 18 months to develop. Behind it are Screenreader.net’s blind founders, the husband and wife team of Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds, with Alan Dean Kemp, the software's developer.

Screenreader.net first thought about developing Georgie for the iPhone, but realised the cost of the handset was high and out of the reach of many people. It could also not create the large buttons on the iPhone, which were needed. The company then turned to the open source Android operating system.

Screenreader has worked closely with the blind community to produce Georgie. The funding for the app came from the Cable & Wireless worldwide foundation – now Vodafone; Nominet Trust; the Boshier-Hinton Foundation and Sight & Sound Ltd. The last company is responsible for marketing the app and retailing mobile phones running the software, but more about it later.

Georgie is presented in a touch-sensitive GUI that is always present, disabling the mobile’s own user interface. The app is broken up into several sections that all sound-out their functions as soon as the icon/button is touched. Holding down these parts of the display for a length of time delivers a beep to confirm selection. Lifting a finger or a thumb off the screen enters that menu, or sliding a digit to something else deselects it.

Home Page Buttons and menus

On the top is Georgie’s main menu option with access to user guides and audio news. Beneath that are icons for phone dialling, contacts, the call log, text messaging, places, and 'more apps'. At the bottom is the settings button. Each of these separate menus has voice-guidance and an easily presented way for the visually impaired to navigate (check out the video at the end).

The phone menu has a keypad where each press sounds out the number. The contacts menu reads out the address book’s individual entries. The call log page has all the call information, with a separate received, missed and made calls section. Each of these buttons also sound out their function when selected.

Text messaging works in the same way, with a detailed audio description for contacting someone. This also applies to receiving and sending messages. Dictating a text message is done through Google’s voice recognition feature, with messages being read back before being sent. The text-to-speech function works by reading out received messages, all of which aids in the app’s usefulness for those with sight loss.

Georgie’s worth doesn’t end there. The Places menu has a Where Am I feature that reads out exactly where you are, based on GPS information and Google Maps. The menu also has an assistance option; when pressed, it sends a text message to predefined contacts. This passes along details such as phone number, time and date, address and GPS coordinates. At the end of this menu is Direction, which utilises the phone's internal compass to audibly tell you the direction the phone's top edge is facing.

The settings menu on the home page provides audible details of the phone. These are items such as the battery level, colour, volume and brightness level, with the last three being adjustable.

For more on these functions, there is a manual that can be downloaded here.

Add Ons

All of the above make up the core functionality of Georgie, although there are other bolt-on packages that expand its feature-set. These are the likes of the travel pack, for locating bus stops, directions to the stop and bus times. The various stops along the route are announced too, alerting when to disembark.

This add-on has the ability to locate the nearest train, tube, airport and ferry, with a way of easily finding the nearest taxi. This information is all brought in from a partnership with the website traintaxi that specialise within this area. The app can also voice the current weather and the locations of nearby places to eat, drink and shop, as well as hospitals and other health related places.

The other two available packages are lifestyle and communication. These provide access to talking newspapers, audio books from LibriVox and podcasts via Infosound. There is an optical character recognition feature that captures and voices documents, with audio guidance for picture-taking and tweeting. It is possible that these separate bolt-ons could all be rolled into the suite, later this year, with a higher cost attached to the software.

What’s Next

On the cards for an upcoming free update to Georgie is the integration of a pedestrian function to Google Maps called WalkyTalky, and the use of Twitter. This feature could be used to tweet a friend for help, such as reading the dial of the cooker, with the answer being read out loud by the app.

Sight and Sound

Sight and Sound are the exclusive retailers of Georgie. It has several SIM-free mobile phones available that run the application. These are the Samsung Galaxy Y for £299; the Galaxy XCover at £389; Samsung’s Ace 2 for £447.80 and for £648.99, the Galaxy S III. There is an added cost of £149, for the application. The company provides lifetime technical support for the app, remotely. 

Georgie is available on Google Play, as a 14-day trial. After that period has elapsed, the user is then asked to contact Sight and Sound Ltd to purchase it. The company helps in setting it up, just as it does when it’s bought with a phone.

Georgie is a great tool for the visually impaired, allowing them to use a mobile phone in a way that many of us do, every day.

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