Android Mobile OS: Pandora’s box of accessibility opportunities

[Update (21/10/09): Google have recently announced  more accessibility features in Android 1.6]
At the RSC we were fortunate to get our hands on one of the latest Android mobile phones, the HTC Hero. For the uninitiated Android is a Open Source mobile operating system originally developed by Google, but now maintained by the Open Handset Alliance. Android is very similar to the iPhone in terms of its multi-touch interface and drop-in add-ons. The real divergence between the two platforms probably lies in the openness.
With the iPhone, whilst it is easy for developers to code applications which use the functionality of the phone, Apple maintain a very strong control over which ones can be download from the ‘App Store’ and unless you are prepared to do some major tinkering to ‘jailbreak’ your phone you are locked in. Android is different because while they have a similar official ‘Market’ where you download approved applications, with one click you can install any 3rd party application. As David Flanders puts it “we as a global community decide what we want, NOT one where a company decides how we want it”.
So what does the community want? Well Google research scientist T.V. Raman and his colleague Charles Chen see Android as an opportunity to move assistive technology to the mobile world.  They have been working on the Eyes-Free project which has created a text-to-speech (TTS) library for android. This, like Android, is an Open Source project and already other developers have been using the TTS library in their own applications. A list of applications is available here. My particular favourites are:

Alchemy Clip – Cameraphone OCR to speech

Alchemy Clip (Web Link) | Alchemy Clip (Android Link)
Allows you to take a snapshot of a piece of text using the phones camera which is then OCR’d to be read-a-loud.

AutoTran iVoiceBrowserLite – Web browser with screen reader

iVoiceBrowserLite (Web Link) | iVoiceBrowserLite (Android Link)
Web browser with built in screen reader.

Eyes-Free Shell – eyes-free communication device

Eyes-Free Shell (Web Link) | Eyes-Free Shell (Android Link)
Turns your Android into an eyes-free communication device, providing one-touch access to Android applications, as well as useful mini-apps built into the Eyes-Free Shell. Move your finger over the screen to explore; lift your finger up to run what you stopped on. See also the Eyes-Free Config Manager (Android Link), which lists the applications from the Eyes-Free Project and enables you to set the Eyes-Free Shell as your default Home application.

Talking Dialer

Talking Dialer (Web Link) |Talking Dialer (Android Link)
Another Eyes-Free project application to help with dialling.

The vOICe – Seeing with sound

The vOICe (Web Link)
The vOICe for Android translates live camera views into sound, targeting augmented reality for the totally blind through sensory substitution and synthetic vision. Includes a talking colour identifier and talking compass.

Speaking Pad – Talking notepad

Speaking Pad (Web Link) | Speaking Pad (Android Link)
A talking notepad for Android. This notepad will speak what you type.
As you would expect with such a new platform some of these applications are still a little ragged around the edges, but I believe the Android platform has huge potential in making mobile technology inclusive, accessible and affordable.


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