Technology means different things to different people. For some of us, it spells ease and convenience, while for people with disabilities, it is liberating and quite life transforming. It has made them less dependent on others and has opened up a world of opportunities. The Braille keyboards and technology like screen readers have made computers and gadgets truly accessible to the visually impaired. But there is one set of people, the deafblind, who are still somewhat ignored, at least when it comes to technology being developed for them. As per 2010 survey conducted by Sense International India, there were an estimated 444,000 deafblind people in India.
Delhi based Bidirectional Access Promotion Society (Bapsi) has for years been working on developing technology to aid those with disabilities and on their to-do list was to develop a solution for the deafblind that will allow them to communicate. Dr. Arun Mehta, President of Bapsi, was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s visit to India and since then, he has been involved in making technology truly accessible to those with disabilities. Speaking about PocketSMS, the app developed by Bapsi, he says, “We were aware that the vibrate function on the mobile phone was something that would work for the deafblind, but the programming of mobile phones was until recently quite a complicated thing. Also, it was not very well supported, as in if it worked on one phone then it might not work on another phone. With the launch of Android phones and developer tools like App Inventor now the MIT App Inventor, all the pieces of the puzzle were available together, so that’s when we decided towards creating this app.”
Home screen of the app
PocketSMS makes use of the phone vibrations to denote the Morse codes. The Morse code, Dr. Mehta explains, is the best choice when it comes to binary communication channel like the vibrate mode. Explaining the reason behind using the Morse code, Dr. Mehta says, “Morse code is a fairly sophisticated means of communication, it is still widely used and is also available in number of languages. It is basically dots and dashes, so in the app, a dot is represented by a vibration of short duration while the dash is represented by a vibration of longer duration. So when a message is received, every letter in the message will be denoted by short or long vibration depending on its Morse code symbol. Here again every pause is fixed, like how much time should be there between each letter and how much time should there be between every word is well defined.”
The app was developed on App Inventor, during Summer Internship Programme at Bapsi, by 23 year old Anmol Anand, a post-graduate in Masters of Computer Applications, Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, Delhi. The biggest challenge he faced was developing the user interface that will be convenient for the intending users. He explains, “All the functions of the app, right from reading the SMS to sending the reply, had to be made possible using just one button. And this was the biggest challenge. Apart from this, I had to think of different codes that would determine whether the user wanted to send a reply, forward it to different number or wanted to go back to the reading section.” This application has been designed to work on Android based touchscreen phones that are available at reasonably low costs. Also, the app needs to be kept open and running at all times.
Explaining the functions he says, “When a SMS is received the phone will vibrate and the user will need to provide short press to read the SMS, the app will then convert the message to Morse code and provide output through corresponding vibrations for each alphabet. If the user doesn’t wish to reply to the SMS and wants to go back to the reading section then he needs to type “rx”. If he wishes to reply then long press will take him to the reply section, which is basically one large text box. If the reply is meant for the sender of the SMS then the user has to just provide the input “tx” and once the SMS is sent, the app will return back to the reading section. If the user wants to send the SMS to a new number, then they will have to long press that will take them to the reply section where they can feed their message and then type “nx”. This command will save the contents of the text box and then clear it, so that the user can feed the number of the recipient and then type “sx” which will send the SMS.”
“And all these commands are not case sensitive. Further the reading section of the app has three areas – the pastel yellow that displays the SMS in English, the pink area that displays the alphabet that is being vibrated alongwith its Morse code and lastly the bright yellow area that allows you to customize the duration of the vibration for a dot, which will then set the corresponding duration for dash. While the first two features are intended for the caretakers to help them read the SMS, the last feature will help the user to set the vibration duration that suits them so that they can make the communication of SMS faster or slower according to their needs,” he states further. The app is not yet available on the Android app store, but it can be downloaded from Bapsi's website.
The reading section of the app
While it seems pretty straight forward, what could be challenge for the deafblind people, who may know Braille, is that they will have to first familiarise themselves with Morse code. Aware of this, Dr. Mehta and his team have also developed a Morse trainer. Describing the app, he says, “Imagine if you have a phone with a BlackBerry style QWERTY keyboard, then a person using this keyboard for a long period of time can easily type without having to look at the keys. Visually impaired people are quite comfortable with using a keyboard so that’s not an issue. The Morse trainer app will basically vibrate its code for every character pressed. Alongside, we provide a chart, where one column is English alphabets second column is Braille for them and third is the Morse code for it. There is also a fourth column that features the Morse code symbols, for touchscreen phones and can be drawn with the help of Graffiti keyboard. The app will enable a deafblind person to master Morse code without any issues.”
The app has been used by several visually impaired people and it works as intended. However, much to their disappointment, they haven’t yet found a single deafblind person to try their app. Dr. Mehta has contacted deafblind associations around the world, but he hasn’t got any response so far. He points out that the only piece of tech available for the deafblind is Refreshable Braille display, which basically when attached to the computer, provides Braille output on its flat surface for every line on the screen. This is not only expensive, but also includes tiny mechanical components that can cause maintenance problem, especially in our environment. On the other hand, what PocketSMS offers is an inexpensive, simple yet effective technology, which can be further adapted and put to many uses. They are now looking for funding for Morse training and plan to organise competitions for deafblind people where the winner will get a free phone.