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Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing – TechCrunch

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Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

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Apple details new iPhone features like door detection, live captions

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Global Accessibility Awareness Day is Thursday, so Apple took to its newsroom blog this week to announce several major new accessibility features headed to the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac.

One of the most widely used will likely be Live Captions, which is coming to iPhone, Mac, and iPad. The feature shows AI-driven, live-updating subtitles for speech coming from any audio source on the phone, whether the user is “on a phone or FaceTime call, using a video conferencing or social media app, streaming media content, or having a conversation with someone next to them.”

The text (which users can resize at will) appears at the top of the screen and ticks along as the subject speaks. Additionally, Mac users will be able to type responses and have them read aloud to others on the call. Live Captions will enter public beta on supported devices (“iPhone 11 and later, iPad models with A12 Bionic and later, and Macs with Apple silicon”) later this year.

There’s also door detection. It unfortunately will only work on iPhones and iPads with a lidar sensor (so the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 13 Pro, or recent iPad Pro models), but it sounds useful for those who are blind or have low vision. It uses the iPhone’s camera and AR sensors, in tandem with machine learning, to identify doors and audibly tell users where the door is located, whether it’s open or closed, how it can be opened, and what writing or labeling it might have.

Door detection will join people detection and image descriptions in a new “detection mode” intended for blind or low-vision users in iOS and iPadOS. Apple’s blog post didn’t say when that feature would launch, however.

Other accessibility additions that Apple says are just around the corner include 20 new Voice Over languages, new hand gestures on Apple Watch, and a feature that allows game players to receive help from a “buddy” with another game controller without disconnecting their own. Additionally, there are new Siri and Apple Books customizations meant to expand accessibility for people with disabilities, sound recognition customizations, and Apple Watch screen mirroring on the iPhone—which gives Watch users access to many accessibility features available on the iPhone but not the Watch.

Tech enthusiasts often lament that smartphones (and personal tech in general) have become stagnant, without many exciting new developments. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for many people with disabilities. Google, Apple, and numerous researchers and startups have been making significant advancements, bringing powerful new accessibility features to mobile devices.

Listing image by Apple

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Google Russia forced to declare bankruptcy after bank account seizure

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Enlarge / The Google doodle for Russia National Day 2016.

Google’s going… out of business?! That’s apparently the case in Russia. As Reuters reports, Google’s Russia subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after “the authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to carry on operations.” Reuters has a statement from Google:

The Russian authorities’ seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations. Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.

A regulatory filing showed Google Russia has been expecting to file for bankruptcy since March 22. The division did $2 billion in revenue last year, but that doesn’t matter much when authorities take your entire bank account.

Unlike many tech companies that have abandoned Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, Google has tried to keep doing business in the country. Heavy hitters like Google Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail, and Google Play are all still running in Russia. Google’s most important product, the ad platform, was shut down on March 3 in Russia after the Russian government started demanding it censor ads about the war. Over the next few days in March, the big four credit card companies all pulled out of Russia, making normal business transactions very difficult. Google cited this “payment system disruption” as the reason for shutting down Google Play paid apps.

It’s not clear how much of a presence Google will have in Russia going forward. Google has been accused of having a cozy relationship with Russia, and its behavior is an outlier over competitors like Microsoft and Apple, which both voluntarily stopped paid services in the country before the credit card companies pulled out. While Google enjoys a ~90 percent search market share in many countries, Russia is one of the few places it faces a viable search competitor; Google splits the search market nearly 50/50 with local tech company Yandex. That market share might explain why Google doesn’t take a tough stance against Russia—if it gets blocked even temporarily, there might not be a market to come back to.

The Russian government still wants to rely on Google for some services, though. The government said Tuesday it wants to keep YouTube running in the country, saying that a shutdown would harm Russian citizens. Like the rest of the world, there are no video sites on the same scale as YouTube in Russia.

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Microsoft previews a new, totally redesigned Outlook for Windows app

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Enlarge / The new Outlook client for Windows will unify the web and offline clients—when it’s done, anyway.

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For years now, Microsoft has been planning behind the scenes to unify its disparate Outlook clients across the web, Windows, and macOS. Today, that goal moved one step closer to completion with the introduction of a new Outlook client for Windows users that closely mirrors the interface and functionality of the Outlook web client.

The new app is available to Office Insiders in the Beta channel who have work or school Microsoft 365 accounts. Regular Microsoft accounts aren’t currently supported. This appears to be the same version of the Outlook client that leaked to the public a couple of weeks ago.

A unified Outlook client, also known as “One Outlook” or “Project Monarch,” will be an especially welcome change for Mac users. The Mac version of Outlook has always looked different from and been less fully featured than the Windows client, though the current situation is much better than the bad old days of Microsoft Entourage.

The new Outlook app will reportedly replace not just the current Outlook app but also Windows’ built-in Mail and Calendar apps. Those apps received minor updates for Windows 11 to bring them in line with its redesigned user interface but otherwise haven’t seen many functional improvements in recent years. The new Outlook app will run on Windows 10 and 11, but we don’t know whether it will replace the Mail and Calendar apps in both OSes.

The new Outlook app is still in early development, and as such, there is a long list of common mail client features that it doesn’t support. In-development and planned features that aren’t yet supported include support for IMAP mail accounts, @outlook.com accounts, offline use, use with multiple accounts, and support for working with .pst Outlook data files.

We may get more information on the One Outlook project at Microsoft’s Build developer conference, which runs next week from May 24–26.

Listing image by Microsoft

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