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Project Ray: It's a Feature Phone--No, It's a Smartphone!
Here at AccessWorld we are frequently contacted by newly blind individuals--especially seniors--or their family members, requesting information about accessible phones. We nearly always try to steer them toward an accessible smartphone, but many shy away from this purchase. Some feel incapable of learning to use the technology--they are incorrect, in our opinion--while others are hopeful they might learn to use an iPhone or Android smartphone if given enough time, but they can't bear the thought of going weeks or months being unable to make calls or read texts on a phone they don't yet know how to operate.
In this article I will introduce you to a new possibility, a software solution called RAY Vision combined with optional hardware not generally available here in North America. Together they occupy the ground halfway between a feature phone and smartphone. I say halfway, but in effect it's actually a combination of a feature phone and a smartphone you can switch between as your needs and ability change. It's being developed by an Israeli company called Project RAY, and recently it won the 2018 Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Foundation Eureka Park Accessibility Contest CES award.
The RAY Vision Software
RAY Vision combines proprietary software with an Android smartphone.
Basically, the RAY Vision software is a suite of accessible apps combined with its own, third-party launcher, the part of the Android interface that enables users to customize their device's home screen, launch mobile apps, make phone calls, and perform other tasks on Android tablets and smartphones.
RAY Vision also comes with its own voice guide, a suite of easy-to-use accessible apps, and a secure Web interface that enables user's friends and family members to use a remote connection to help perform a variety of tasks, including the following:
- Managing a Contacts list.
- Managing the Calendar and Scheduler (alarms).
- Initiating a beeping sound on RAY (finding your phone at home).
- Displaying the geographic location of RAY (where am I, and where was the last place I used my phone?).
- Uploading music, periodicals, and books.
The RAY Vision software can be downloaded and installed on any Android device running version 4.2 or later. There is a 30-day free trial; after that the cost is $5 per month. RAY Vision works best when it comes preinstalled on one of the phones offered by the company itself, however, so here let's hit the pause button on our discussion of the software and introduce you to the two unusual phones offered by Project RAY.
Feature Phones with Bonus Features
Project RAY offers two mobile phones with RAY Vision software preinstalled: the RAY L5 ($645, based on the LG H410 running Android Lollipop), and RAY S7 ($799, based on the Samsung J7 running Android Marshmallow). Both of these are combination feature/smartphones. Both have a flip-phone style dial pad with raised buttons and a smartphone-style touch screen.
The LG H410 resembles a slightly longer than normal flip phone. Open the device and reveal a full raised-button keypad and standard feature phone navigation ring. But instead of a barebones, single color display, the LG H410 phone sports a full color touch screen.
The S7 resembles two GSM smartphones stacked one atop the other. Unfold the phone and you find the same physical buttons and navigation ring. There is a standard color display inside, but when closed, you have access to a second touch screen. Thus with the unit closed, you are presented with a double thick standard touch screen Android smartphone.
Running the RAY Vision Software
The RAY Vision software is menu driven. It can be accessed two ways. On the L5 and S7 you can use the physical dial pad and navigation ring to move between the entries, make selections and enter phone numbers, text messages, and other data. On touch-screen only phones, and on both the RAY Vision models, you can also access RAY Vision via the devices' touch screens.
RAY uses a combination of ultra-clear, prerecorded prompts and the stock Android voice, which can be changed. The prerecorded prompts are used for RAY Vision menus and accessible apps, the Android voice whenever you venture into Android territory in an apps list, browser screen, or dictated text.
Longtime Android users will recall that prior to the introduction of TalkBack there was another touch-screen reader called Spiel. This seems to be the model upon which RAY Vision's touch interface accessibility is based. To make a menu choice, the user begins by placing a finger at the center of the touch screen, as though you were reaching for the number 5 on a standard dial pad. Wait for the confirmation sound, at which time menu or app options will be arranged out in the 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 positions, with the Cancel option at the top left of any screen. Slide your finger until you hear the desired option spoken, then simply raise your finger off the screen--much like users of TalkBack and VoiceOver do to enter a character on their unit's onscreen keyboards. The RAY onscreen keyboard displays the entire alphabet and number row and punctuation at once. You can disable this keyboard, however, and use a standard Android keyboard--either the stock keyboard or any third party keyboard installed on the device.
You can use a combination of dial pad and touch commands to access the phone, but this is much more easily done using the LG phone, since the S7 requires the user to hold the phone awkwardly or else close the device before using the touch screen.
RAY Vision enables display colors and font size to be easily configurable for low-vision users. Voice speed can also be changed. To do either, access the Information and Settings option.
The preinstalled RAY Vision apps include accessible replacements for the stock Android versions of the Phone, Calendar, Scheduler, Message, Location, Library, Weather, and Music player apps. It also includes an accessible interface for the What's App texting app, and apps for color recognition and currency identification.
If you select More Options you will also discover the Android Camera, Gallery, and YouTube apps, along with an "Applications list" option that offers up dozens of preinstalled Android essentials, including Google Play so you can add more. It is obvious which apps are supplied from RAY Vision, since they are spoken with the higher quality voice. Announcement of Android apps is performed using TalkBack.
A RAY Vision Road Test
I had the opportunity to test Project RAY on three different phones--the two described above and a stock Nexus 5. The LG was the most convenient if I wanted to mix dial pad and touch commands. Using the S7, I spent a lot of time opening and closing the phone. With 2 GB RAM and 16 GB memory the S7 was much more responsive than the L5 (see the entire specifications here), while the L5 (see complete specifications here) only has 256 MB of RAM and 8 GB of memory, so at the very least it would need to be augmented with a micro SD card. Needless to say the Nexus was the snappiest of the three. Of course it doesn't offer dial pad access, although it would not be at all difficult to either pair a Bluetooth keyboard or purchase an optional $50 RAY Click--a four-button accessory that you attach to the rear of the phone to enable use of all of the Project Ray software features with a bring-your-own device.
Phone and Text
Let's start with the basics, making and receiving phone calls and text messages.
These are both done via menus--use the dial pad on the phones that have one, or the touch screen. Additionally, the RAY Vision software comes with dictation automatically enabled. When you're going to compose a text message you will hear a sound, after which you can dictate if you like. (Note: auto dictation can be toggled off in RAY settings.) I found the dictation extremely accurate when speaking phone numbers, summoning contacts, and composing text messages. As a longtime iOS user I am always pleasantly surprised by the quality of Google dictation.
Remember, you or a delegated helper can add a contact, either on the phone or on the website. You can also add speed dial to your favorite contacts. As with most feature phones, you must press a key repeatedly to cycle through the various numbers and characters on each physical button. This was a bit confusing at first: when three taps of the 2 key led the phone to voice "B replaced A," I wondered if I mistyped the backspace.
The touch screen RAY Vision keyboard displays both completely and alphabetically, and I found it a bit awkward to use. I repeatedly lifted my finger when I did not intend to. So, I went into settings and disabled the RAY keyboard in favor of the stock Android keyboard.
Other RAY Vision Apps
The Music app enables users to play music uploaded to the Web interface or copied directly to the phone. Currently the books and magazines include extremely limited offerings. The Navigation app has a flaw here in the US. The My Location option does not report the current address, even though it does know it. Every time I attempted to obtain my current location, the software reported "US, accuracy 16 feet," but it would give me the proper nearby points of interest. For now, the free Nearby Explorer Online navigation app is a much more feature rich and accurate option.
One last piece of RAY Vision software I will discuss in this section is RAY Eye Assist Pro. This software enables a friend or family member to conduct a remote video session with your device, much like Be My Eyes. The remote helper can also view a map of your current location, if you need navigation assistance. The helper must install special software available from Google Play. It costs $55 per user, and if you have several helpers this cost can quickly add up. Better to use Be My Eyes, Google Hangouts, or Skype, possibly combined with Nearby Explorer.
Venturing Into Android Territory
Under the RAY "Applications List" option I discovered 81 apps that had been preinstalled on my test devices--including the Audible app and the KNFB Reader app, which will recognize up to 25 pages before it must be purchased. (Note: I do think the BARD Mobile app should be included on US versions of the software setup.) As soon as you open any of these Android apps TalkBack is enabled. You can use the dial pad and navigation rings for some navigation tasks, but mostly you will need to use the standard TalkBack slide and tap gestures to invoke controls and enter data.
You can exit RAY Vision, but you will be deposited into the RAY Vision Launcher, which is quite basic, and a good starting place for new Android users.
It's been a long time since I've used a feature phone. I had trouble remembering which non-numerical keys performed which functions. I think it would be extremely useful for the developers to include a review mode where a user could press feature phone keys to hear their functions spoken aloud.
I also found myself often confused as to which commands to use, the RAY touch and slide commands or the TalkBack swipe and double tap. I am certain this situation would improve with practice and familiarity with the RAY Vision vs Android apps, but I fear the novice user with little smartphone experience who is seeking a feature phone replacement would quickly grow just as frustrated with this setup as he or she would with a full smartphone. So if you are setting up a Ray Vision phone for a first-time smartphone user, perhaps limit the menu choices to those apps the new user will find most important, then add more as they grow more comfortable with the interface.
RAY Vision is not a product for anyone with smartphone experience, and to their credit the makers actively state this. "RAY Vision is for newly blind and others with disabilities who feel intimidated by smartphones," says Boaz Zilberman, Project Ray CEO. "Our biggest hope is that the next smartphone our users will buy, will not be a RAY device but a regular, off-the-shelf smart device."
If you are newly blind, or a friend or family member hoping to persuade a loved one to give accessible smartphones a try, I would definitely download RAY Vision onto your own device and give it a good workout. You have 30 days free to try it. Show them the basics of making and receiving calls, then slowly add additional functionality as they become ready. My guess is that within the year they will be a full-fledged TalkBack user.
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