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Tech Firms to Develop More Gadgets for the Blind

January 9, 2009

For the average consumer, the new generation of touch-screen gadgets are exciting and easy to use, but to blind consumers they are simply off-limits.

Starting with the popularity of Apple Inc’s iPhone, touch-screen technology has expanded into other markets including PCs, cameras, TVs and GPS devices.

However, the expansion of such technology has effectively alienated blind consumers.

Grammy-award winning artist Stevie Wonder appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Thursday to appeal to developers to create gadgets for the visually-impaired.

“I’d like a car I can use to get around,” Wonder said when asked what technology is at the top of his wish list. “That may be a long way off.”

“If you can take those few steps further, you can give us the excitement, the pleasure and the freedom of being a part of it,” Wonder said.
Wonder pointed to the successful efforts of Apple’s iPod music player and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry to provide methods of use for the blind.

“There are a lot of cool gadgets out there and we want to make sure our blind friends, family and people we don’t even know are able to use those devices,” said Sendero Group chief executive Mike May.

“Can I ski 60 miles an hour downhill? Yes. Use a flat panel microwave? No,” joked May.

Some 70 percent of blind people in the US don’t have jobs, said May, who is blind.

Sendero created Mobile Geo satellite positioning and talking map software that tells users where they are and how to get where they want to go. The technology received a Vision Award from Wonder as well as an innovation award from CES.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation For The Blind, said manufacturers would not need to spend substantial amounts of money or sacrifice innovation to make their devices accessible for both the sighted and the blind.

“We don’t want to hold up technological progress,” he told Reuters. “What we’re saying is, think about the interface and set it up in such a way that it’s simple …. The simpler you make the user interface of a product, it’s going to reach more people sighted or blind.”

While blind users can buy screen-reading software for $300 upward, it tends to only work on certain phones, often the most expensive smartphones. Sendero said accessible technology is often expensive.

Developers at Google Inc are working on ways to make touch-screen phones, including those based on its own Android mobile software, usable for blind people.

“I think in general there may be a view that accessibility may be becoming the new green,” said Mike Starling, chief technology officer of National Public Radio, which has announced a special radio receiver technology and software that would connect a digital radio to a dynamic Braille generating device.

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