Product Evaluations and Guides
An Evaluation of the RAY G300, an Android-based Smartphone Designed for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Project-RAY Ltd. has developed, in partnership with Qualcomm, the RAY device, a smartphone interface for the visually impaired. The device consists of an Android smartphone with custom software that simplifies the interface so that it's easier for someone with a visual impairment to use than a standard smartphone like a Nexus Android device or an iPhone. The device is currently for sale at the Project-RAY website, and it will be available in July from Odin Mobile, a cell phone carrier designed specifically for the blind and visually impaired.
For this evaluation I will describe the $500 model from the Project-RAY website. This device is a Huawei G300 running Android 2.3.6 (Gingerbread). I will describe the phone, interface, and the device's capabilities as well as enhancements that are scheduled for the US release of the RAY device.
Physical Description of the Huawei G300
The top of the Huawei G300 is completely taken by the four-inch touchscreen. On the left edge of the device, close to the top, are two raised volume buttons. On the top edge is a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left and a raised power button on the right. The right edge contains nothing while the bottom edge contains the Micro USB charger port. The back of the device can be removed by prying it from one of the corner edges, but this process requires the user to exert a significant amount of force. Under the back cover, you'll find the removable lithium-ion battery at the bottom half of the interior. There is a horizontal standard SIM card slot in the top left portion of the interior. To the right of the SIM card slot is a vertical MicroSD card slot. Overall, the device's buttons are tactile, and the simple design makes it easy to learn the device's surface. The interior of the phone is textured and easily distinguishable as well.
User Guide and Interactive Tutorial
You can download the RAY user guide from the RAY support webpage in DOC format. In WordPad, the file displays extra characters between pages and chapters. The document remains accessible, however, as the content isn't obscured by this glitch. The document contains diagrams that are labeled, but not described. Unfortunately the labels don't provide any useful information about the contents of the diagrams. The official guide seems to be outdated, as many apps are not described.
Even though the user guide is not very useful at this time, the RAY device contains a helpful interactive tutorial called Wizard, which describes each system control and allows you to practice the gestures and control screens. There are goals established for each practice, and the device will alert you to your statistics for each practice so that you can be sure that you are operating the interface correctly. The apps are very simple, and after completing the tutorial, it's not difficult to understand the apps even without written instructions.
The RAY Interface
The RAY device uses three main types of controls: menus, lists, and management screens. In addition to these three types of controls, the interface contains a special keyboard and dialer for text and number input. All apps (except for those that use the camera) use only these types of controls. Camera apps have a special Camera screen for their interface. The controls are designed to be easily understood and used by the visually impaired so that an individual who is blind can easily learn the operation of the phone and not be confused by differing app layouts.
Menus are used as the control for the Home screens as well as for certain apps, such as the Telephone and Messaging apps. The screen is organized like a telephone keypad, though the positions are not static. Rather, the screen orients to where you place your finger: wherever you place your finger becomes the 5 position. The apps are arranged in a square around the 5 position, so there are eight icons on each screen. For example, the Telephone menu is located at the 2 position, and the Previous Screen icon is situated at the 1 position. Though you might place your finger at the traditional 6 position, the device would identify that spot as the 5 position. In that situation, you could not use the apps in the 3, 6, and 9 positions, because the device will have placed them off of the side of the touchscreen. Because of this, it's best to place your finger in the center of the device so that all of the app positions will be accessible on the screen.
Once you have highlighted the app you want, simply lift your finger to open it. If you touch the screen, but don't want to make a choice, simply drag your finger off of the edge of the device, and your action will be canceled. There is a sound to alert you when you have placed your finger on the screen and a sound to identify when you have canceled an action. The device also speaks "Cancel" when you are close enough to the edge of the device to cancel an action. The device vibrates and announces the selection when you gesture to an app. Once an app has been activated, the device vibrates and announces what has been opened.
Apps use lists to present many choices, such as in the Settings and Information screens. When a list appears, the device will announce the number of items in the list. The previous screen item is not taken into account in the device's calculations of how many items are in the list. To move within the list, you place your finger on the screen and the device will announce the item currently selected. You can make the list scroll upwards and downwards by slightly moving your finger upwards and downwards on the screen. An ascending tone sequence indicates that the list will scroll upwards, and a descending tone sequence indicates that the list will scroll downwards. Once you gesture to start the list scrolling, the scrolling will continue until you lift your finger to make a selection. You can tap with another finger to cut off the speaking of an item and advance to the next. You cannot do this quickly to move by multiple items as the list must stop for a moment on every item. A single tone will play to alert you when you reach the first item in the list.
Management screens are screens where options are toggled, and actions, such as playing music, are performed. You place your finger on the screen and cycle through the available options by moving your finger slightly to the left or right. Though functionally these screens are simply horizontal lists, you can't cut off the announcement of the current item by tapping with another finger, and you won't hear a tone to tell you which direction you are moving in. It takes much longer to advance from one item to another in these management screens.
Keyboards and the Dialer
When entering numbers and text, you use the most complicated types of controls, the keyboard and dialer. These screens have a similar layout to one another. The dialer is arranged like a standard telephone keypad. Because the device recognizes where you place your finger as the 5 position and arranges the screen accordingly, it's necessary to place your finger in the center of the screen so that you can access all of the numbers. The numbers and options available on the keyboard are read aloud when they are selected, and you lift your finger to activate the number or option you want to use. Options such as "Delete" and "Read" are located on numbers instead of having separate buttons. For example, the "Finish Typing" option is located in the 6 position. To activate it, you gesture right to the 6, and the device will read "6" and, then, "Finish Typing." The options cycle so that, if you miss the option you wanted to use, you can wait until it returns, then lift your finger to activate it.
The keyboard is very similar except for the number positions, which contain letters in addition to their respective numbers and options. For example, the letters A, B, and C are located in the 2 position and D, E, and F are located in the 3 position. This is the style of typing originally used for text input on cell phones without a QWERTY keyboard.
The Online Interface
The RAY device is connected to an online interface for manipulating various aspects of the phone. This interface can be accessed by activating the "Log In" link on the Project-RAY website. You are able to add music and books to the device from the online interface as well as add contacts and calendar items. You can also cause your device to emit a loud sound for easy location and see its location on a map, but unfortunately, the map is inaccessible. The online interface is very easy to navigate, and it uses accessible links and edit boxes as controls that pose no issues for screen readers. When you choose an option from the list of links, the options for that link appear below the main list of options. A screen reader user would need to be sure to arrow below the options to learn if the options selected have appeared. At this current time, there are no headings to differentiate between the main list of options and the secondary options that appear when an option link is activated. Having a heading below the first list of main options would be useful, so screen reader users could immediately jump to the options that they need.
Even though it's not as robust as a standard smartphone, the RAY interface includes many apps found on modern smartphones. These include both productivity tools, such as a voice recorder and calendar, and media apps, such as a music player and audio book reader. These apps are all very simple, but provide decent access to commonly used smartphone services.
The RAY device supports most of the basic functions of a standard cell phone. You are able to make calls through either a Contacts list or through a manual dialer. The keyboard remains on the screen just in case you need to enter numbers during a call. Pressing the Power button will end an in-progress call. You are able to check your log of missed and incoming calls by using the Telephone menu. You can also specify contacts as favorites and add several numbers to a list of emergency contacts.
You can add contacts through the online interface. They will subsequently appear on your RAY device, and you can manage your contacts from the device itself. You can listen to the contact information, add a note to the contact, mark it as a favorite, and delete the contact as well as call the contact or send a text message to the contact. You can also send messages from the Messages menu as well as check your unread messages.
There are several apps for playing media on the RAY device. One is the Library app. This app allows you to download and play audiobooks and audio magazines from the Israeli Central Library for the Blind (Project-RAY is based in Israel). When you choose books from the online interface, they will be downloaded to your device. The app's main screen is a standard menu with eight options. You can select the book you wish to listen to from a list, and you can play and navigate through the book or magazine using a management screen. You can also delete books that you are finished listening to through the Library app.
Another app for listening to media is the Internet Radio app. At the current time, there are several preset stations that you are able to play. This app uses a list for displaying the various stations, and a management screen for listening to a specific station. At this time, you can't remove stations or add new stations.
The Music app displays a list of various artists and albums. Selecting one of these will place you in a management screen where you can play the current song or navigate to another either by using the "Previous" option or by selecting a song from a track list. You must use the online interface to add music to the device. The online interface will ask for the artist and album before allowing you to select the tracks you wish with the standard windows upload dialogue box. Even though tracks appear on the MicroSD Card, you are unable to add files directly to the MicroSD Card or delete music.
The last media app is the Recordings app, which is located in the Calendar menu. "Recordings" and "Add Recording" are separate icons. After you have finished recording, the device will prompt you for a title. Once you have typed the title and activated the "Finish Typing" option, you will be taken into a management screen where you can play or delete the recording as well as listen to information about the recording, such as the title and the time that the file was recorded. The "Recordings" menu item launches a list of recordings to choose from. Once one is activated, you will be taken to the previously mentioned recording playback management screen.
Time Management Apps
There are several apps that help you manage your time. One of these is the Clock app. Activating the "Clock" icon from a Home screen will announce the time and date. There is a separate Alarm Clock app, which is located in the Calendar menu. This app uses lists to select the hour and minute of the alarm. After selecting these options, you are returned to the Calendar menu. The alarm plays the sound of a mechanical alarm clock. If the device is locked when the alarm goesoff, unlocking it will silence the alarm. If the screen is active when the alarm goes off, touching it silences the alarm. When the alarm rings, it will cause the current control to disappear, and it will not return until you silence the alarm.
There is also an app for creating appointments, located in the Calendar menu on the Home screen. The Add Appointment app will take you step by step through a series of lists to set the date, time, and duration as well as alerts for the appointment. When this process is finished, you are taken to the appointment management screen where you can listen to the information, add a note to the appointment, or update the appointment information. You can also delete the appointment. When the time of the appointment arrives and you have an alert, it will play a very short sequence of piano notes to alert you to the fact.
There are many other apps that do not fall into categories discussed above. There is a simple GPS that will tell you your current location. There is also a Bank Notes app where you can recognize American dollars, euros, and shekels. This app displays the camera view, and it will automatically announce the denomination of a bill placed in front of the camera. The Colors app is similar, but you must touch the screen to have the currently focused color recognized. The camera view takes the entire screen, and you must bring up the Power menu by holding down the Power button to return to the Home menu.
Advancements for the United States Model from Odin Mobile
I was able to talk with the developer of RAY, who described some of the advancements that will be available on the version of the RAY device sold in the US by Odin Mobile. The device that houses the RAY interface will be running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which will allow RAY users to use native Android apps with standard Android accessibility features. The US device will also have the ability to download more sources of media, from Audible audiobooks to podcasts. The device is expected to also support publications from NFB-NEWSLINE. It will also have integrated voice dictation for text entry fields as well as for searching while in lists. This is an extremely useful feature as the major limitation of the current RAY device is that it's far too slow for most people to use without frustration. Adding dictation will make it much easier for users to enter long text messages as well as quickly find a certain item in a very long list.
The Bottom Line
The RAY device is a useful device for those who feel uncomfortable operating standard smartphones. The simple interface and the uniformity of the controls make it easy for a new user to begin using all the apps on the device. The menu concept may take time for some users to understand, but after they do so, operating the device should be no issue. The device is rather limited for more advanced smartphone users, however. It's rather slow because of the control scheme, and there isn't much in the way of customization or advanced functions. The Odin Mobile version of the phone would be much more useful as a user could begin with the RAY interface when they first begin learning how to use the smartphone and, eventually, switch to the standard Android interface. The US device will sell for $300 from Odin Mobile, which is similar to the price of other Android smartphones. Overall, the RAY device would be useful for people who feel they would not be able to learn the functions of a standard smartphone, but the decreased functionality and slow interface would keep most tech savvy users away.
Available From: Project-RAY
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