In a world driven by technology, there is no way for disabilities to limit your exposure to them. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, has come up with a tech solution that allows blind people to shop with ease.
Alibaba offers a smart screen that can help blind people shop easier than ever before.
The company named this initiative Alibaba Damo Academy. Initially 100 researchers participated in the program to increase technology cooperation around the world. The academy was led by Jeff Zhang, Alibaba’s chief technology officer. The Research Academy is functional and cooperating with several universities for over a year now.
Finally, after a year of joint effort with Tsinghua University, DAMO introduced an inexpensive silicone chip that helps blind people carry out smartphone operations.
This inexpensive sheet has three sensory-enabled buttons on each side of the screen. Users can perform certain basic operations by pressing these buttons. These shortcut buttons are designed with the hope of making the operation easier for blind people.
It also helps avoid the long and complicated processes that are performed to get a task done on smartphones.
Previously, human-machine interaction for the blind was possible through voice control devices. Just expanding the concept gave rise to this amazing smart touch interaction. This smart touch is just a different way to interact with the device just as voice controls previously did. The smart touch also helps blind people hear the text as soon as they hold the screen close to their ears. It prevents them from having to listen to text on headphones or speakers.
DAMO Academy Research Director, Chen Chao, says in an interview with TechCrunch.
Smart Touch is currently rolling out to the flagship apps of Alibaba, Taobao, and Alipay.
Later on, the company aims to make the technology widely available in other applications as well. This can be done by making some subtle changes to other apps for the purpose of integration.
Currently, the app is on the road or in testing phase with over a hundred people with low vision. Finding specific people for testing makes this process slow and difficult. However, the Smart Touch is expected to launch in 2019 after rigorously testing the silicone film.
Only a few years ago, Li Mengqi couldn’t imagine shopping on her own. Someone always needed to keep her company to say out loud what was in front of her, while she was blind from birth.
When smartphones with text-to-speech machines arrived for the visually impaired, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Although it was very expensive,” Lee, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in east China’s Zhejiang Province, told me. The cheap smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.
Screen reading software has opened up a plethora of new opportunities for the visually impaired. “I felt liberated, and I was no longer dependent on others,” said Lee, who can now shop WeChat to her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone Compass.
Reading everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be cumbersome. Digital readers aren’t decoding human ideas, so when Li enters apps with busy interfaces, like an e-commerce platform, she gets bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.
Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $ 15 billion R&D initiative, Damo Academy has worked to improve the smartphone usage experience for blind people. Its latest answer, a joint effort with the prestigious Tsinghua University in China, is a cheap silicone pad that sits on top of smartphone screens.
Li is among the first hundred visually impaired or blind users who experimented with the technology. Nothing stands out in the plastic film – which costs 0.25 RMB or 3.6 US cents each to produce – until we take a closer look. There are three small buttons on each side. They are sensory enabled, which means that pressing them triggers certain commands, which are usually used frequently such as “go back” and “confirm”.
It is much easier to shop with the sheet, he told me. Having button shortcuts eliminates the risk of incorrect clicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is a human-machine interaction, and it’s the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.
“We believed that the interaction between man and machine cannot only be for sighted people,” Chen Chao, director of research at Damo Academy, told TechCrunch.