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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smartphones to help make the blind independent

The Project RAY team at work.

 The Project RAY team at work.

Socially conscious Israeli entrepreneur provides a platform for apps that assists the visually impaired, using advanced technologies already embedded in smartphones.

gtime player in Israel's mobile technology scene, realized that the slew of sensors - GPS, accelerometers, cameras, compasses, touch-screens, light sensors and other useful tools - could be used for socially redeeming purposes. 

Vakulenko teamed up with Boaz Zilberman, co-founder and CSA of Fring, and Giant Steps founder and CEO Arik Siegel, his research partner at Vision Mobile, to develop a new platform for Android phones that harnesses the capabilities of these devices and turns them into a full-fledged computer to help visually impaired people to live far more independently.

"Project RAY is a true 'do good, do well' social enterprise," says Vakulenko. "Over time, the project developed into a company that will earn money by doing socially conscious things for the disabled." The RAY team developed application software (apps) and a user interface "designed from the ground up for the needs of blind people, along with the innovative use of sensors and cloud connectivity," says Vakulenko.

One Project RAY app, for example, will help blind people maintain their bearings outdoors. The app uses GPS technology to tell blind users the exact street address and intersection they're standing at, and what direction they are going in.

Another app is designed for blind people who take numerous medications. The app uses the phone's camera to scan the label on a pill bottle; a voice reads out the name of the medication. "Existing solutions - raised Braille labels, or special bar-code scanners, for example - are expensive and difficult to implement," says Vakulenko, adding that dozens of other apps are expected to follow.

But the crown jewel of Project RAY is the app for ordering and listening to audiobooks. "A blind person is extremely dependent on the library - it is often their main source of entertainment and information," says Vakulenko. Most blind people peruse a Braille catalog and order their audiobooks via "snail mail." The process can take weeks, and there is always the possibility that the book will get lost in the mail or that the handler will pack up the wrong book.

The Project RAY system solves that problem. A device equipped with the RAY platform will maintain a wireless connection to the library used by the blind for their audiobooks.

"In Israel, the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped has one of the most extensive collections of audiobooks, periodicals and magazines. Project RAY users in Israel can seamlessly and easily order and listen to books and periodicals by using breakthrough user interface of their phone. The software connects to the library's servers and starts playing the book almost immediately," says Vakulenko. "It's a lot easier and more convenient than previous systems."

Coming online next year

The local version of Project RAY, including library access, comes on line in early 2012, and will be followed by deployments in Europe, where the company has been in extensive talks with organizations that work with the blind. "I was always looking for a way to leverage the unprecedented power of modern smartphones into something more useful, and about 18 months ago, we got the idea to start working with the blind," says Vakulenko.

That desire turned into a real plan thanks to the inspiration of former CEO of the Central Library for the Blind, Uri Cohen. "When we saw how difficult it was for many blind people to use audiobooks, we were inspired to come up with a solution for the library - and the whole project just progressed from there," Vakulenko says.

Project RAY is currently self-funded, but is in the final stages of approval for funding by the Israel Chief Scientist's office. The RAY team, now including about a dozen people, also has agreements with local Israeli distributors, mobile operators and Israel's National Insurance Institute to deploy the system in 2012. And it is expected to expand globally from there.

"We have already been getting inquiries from around the world," says Vakulenko. "We believe there are many people who will want to get involved in this high-impact project - either to help develop the system, or as investors. It seems as if there are a lot of people who see what we've seen: that the technology that is just fun for most people can also be life-changer for others."