Two New Smartwatch Apps Aim to Help the Visually Impaired

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Smartwatches are young in their lifespan, with Google’s Android Wear smartwatch platform as an early example. For the visually impaired, even this first generation is a huge leap forward in navigation and communication technology.

A new pair of watch apps from pharmaceutical company Novartis has been launched with the intent of helping the visually impaired. The first app, Via Opta Nav, provides turn-by-turn navigation in the manner of Google Maps or Waze, but directions are provided with both voice directions and with haptic feedback. The second app, only available for smartphones (because it relies on camera feedback that smartwatches can’t provide just yet), allows the user to identify objects and places just by pointing the camera at them.

Jenine Stanley, consumer relations coordinator for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, says smartwatches have technology built right in that blind people have been taking advantage of since the launch of the devices, featuring detailed and extensive standards for accessibility. Accessibility in tech refers to features that allow those with various disabilities to use software and hardware that would be difficult or impossible to use otherwise.

“Once you follow the apps that are written along accessibility standards, most can be made easily accessible,” says Stanley. “It's really broken down barriers.” These services translate what’s happening on the screen into audio commands and descriptions, which aids those who can’t see the screen.

Smartwatches in particular hold a great deal of promise for the visually impaired. “On the watch, so much of what you do doesn't require your eyes. You're not really going to be staring at your watch and doing a lot of intense things,” Stanley continues. Smartwatches are great for quick communication and data feedback, and a lot of that can be done with VoiceOver or TalkBack, including sending text messages.

Perhaps the biggest improvement in smartphones and the area with the most potential is haptic feedback. Haptic feedback refers to the little vibrations that your phone or smartwatch gives to alert you to various happenings, such as a buzz for a new email received. With smartwatches resting right up against a very sensitive part of the body (the wrist), they have the potential to convey much more complex and helpful haptic messages.

Another feature Stanley loves is payment systems. For those of us with sight, payment with a credit card seems natural and easy. The blind, however, have been the victim of identity theft because of an inability to see who might be peeking at a credit card. “The credit card is exposed and anyone can take it, so utilizing this technology is so much more secure,” says Stanley. With apps like Google Wallet, you can pay without anyone seeing your private information. It can also be easier to trigger these payment apps rather than having to fish through a wallet for a specific credit card.

Stanley works with guide dogs both in her private life and as part of her job; they’re a fundamental part of how she lives. Her smartwatch is having a huge impact, too. “It makes conversations not about my guide dog, or about my blindness,” she says. “It makes me a person, and that is a really big deal.”

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