The Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) of Hamad bin Khalifa University, a member of Qatar Foundation, is a specialized institute whose research consistently attracts worldwide coverage.
Whether helping to coordinate disaster relief through its Artificial Intelligence for Digital Response platform, or hosting high-profile discussions on the topic of cyber security threats, QCRI is renowned for its commitment to tackling large-scale computing challenges. With the launch of a custom keyboard aimed at the visually impaired, however, the research entity is demonstrating the immediate benefits its technology can have upon communities in Qatar and beyond.
Titled ‘BrailleEasy’, the innovation is a custom keyboard for iOS that enables one-handed typing based on Braille and is suitable for both Arabic-speaking and English-speaking users. Speaking to The Foundation, Dr Stephan Vogel, Research Director, Arabic Language Technologies, QCRI, explained the need for such a venture.
“Smartphones, and increasingly smartwatches, are widely used in our day-to-day communication, which mostly is text based,” he said. “For sighted people these devices are easy to use, but for the visually impaired this is not the case. Developing this Brailling app in close collaboration with the local community has been a very rewarding experience.”
The local community Dr Vogel mentions is the Qatar Social and Cultural Center for the Blind (QSCCB), Al Noor Institute for the Blind, and MADA (Qatar Assistive Technology Center), each of which played an important role in the development of the application.
“It was clear from the beginning that this was something that could only be developed with the involvement of end-users,” said Dr Vogel. “We wanted user studies early on, to gain direct feedback as we went from stage to stage.”
Abdurrahman Ghanem, Software Engineer, QCRI, echoed Dr Vogel’s sentiments, stating: “Frustration is the first barrier for users engaging with an app such as this. If you become frustrated the first time you use an app, you will never use it again. For BrailleEasy we needed to ensure ease of use throughout all stages of its development.”
Barbara Šepic, formerly of QCRI and the main developer of the app, recognized BrailleEasy would need to present a unique approach to Brailling if it were to stand a chance of attracting the attention of the local community.
In general, touch-screen devices create many inconveniences for the visually impaired community. Although operating systems offer basic accessibility options that help users navigate through menus, typing remains cumbersome and slow. Since the end of 2014, iOS – the platform of choice for BrailleEasy – offers a Braille-like keyboard that can speed up typing considerably. However, it requires users to type with both hands, which is considered troublesome and uncomfortable by users.
The key difference between BrailleEasy and fellow Braille keyboard apps is that the former enables one-handed typing based on Braille. While it is based on the original two-handed Braille writing system, it has been transformed into one-handed typing, which results in a more comfortable use of a handheld device.
“This is such a novel idea. It’s a real accomplishment - there is no other application that allows you to use one hand to write Braille in one language, let alone two languages. I’m so proud that this has been developed in the Arab world,” commented Ikram Ahmed, from QSCCB, at the app’s launch.
“When I heard Ikram say 'there is nothing else quite like this app', I felt very proud,” recalled Dr Vogel.
“I believe that once the basic concept of BrailleEasy is understood and embraced in the community, it can be built upon. The users of the app can become its proponents, and hopefully its impact can stretch beyond these users to become part of school curriculums.”
To make it easier for the visually impaired to become proficient in using this innovative Braille keyboard, QCRI developed a companion app, which teaches typing Arabic and English Braille. As now standardized method exists for teaching Arabic Braille, BrailleEasy provides an additional authoring mode. As Ms Šepic explained:
“Lessons within the app can be customized, so each teacher in a school for the visually impaired can adapt their lessons based on their desired difficulty levels. The ‘author mode’ within the app allows teachers to edit courses and create or modify new lessons to align to their own curriculum.”
BrailleEasy was set to launch on the iOS App Store in July, whereupon the team at QCRI will be closely following its usage and evolving user feedback.
“The app is open source - freely available to be redistributed and modified,” said Dr Vogel. “The idea is to send BrailleEasy out to the community, both local and worldwide, so that others can add to it, improve it, adopt it to other languages.
“Actually, we are sending out the source code, for others to adapt it as they see fit. This app will evolve through its users. At no point was this app positioned to be a money-making venture. We just want it to help people.”
For QCRI’s Executive Director, the release of BrailleEasy is an opportunity to illustrate the full range of the research entity’s capabilities, and how its innovations can directly affect their lives of its end-users for the better.
“This type of research and its associated outcomes speak directly to what I am continually asking our researchers,” stated Dr Ahmed Elmagarmid, Executive Director, QCRI.
“Namely ‘How are we truly making a difference?’ and ‘Why does what we do matter?’ BrailleEasy responds directly to these questions by enabling visually-impaired people to connect more easily, and in a richer way, with society and their environment.”
BrailleEasy will be available to download from the iOS App Store from July 2016