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App unlocks iPhone's potential for the vision-impaired

Douglas Imbrogno
AccessNote loaded on iPhone and paired with a QWERTY keyboard or Braille keyboard (far right) unleashes the note-taking power of the device for people who are blind or have low vision.
Douglas Imbrogno Ricky Kirkendall and Darren Burton conceived and launched AccessNote through the Huntington office of the American Foundation for the Blind, to exploit the note-taking power of the iPhone for people who are blind or visually impaired.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- You might think that the wonders of the iPhone/smartphone communications revolution might be limited to people who can see the devices.

Try telling that to Darren Burton, who lost his vision in 1993 from a tumor and then surgery that damaged his optic nerve. Burton is part of the duo behind a new iPhone app for those with vision loss that he helped bring into being with Marshall University senior Ricky Kirkendall, who does have sight.

Collaborating in the Huntington office of the nonprofit American Foundation for the Blind, they conceived, crafted and, in January, launched AccessNote. The note-taking app for the iPhone (as well as iPad and iPod Touch), is available for $19.99 through Apple's app store and it unleashes the note-keeping functionality of these devices for people who are blind or have low vision.

"I do think we hope to really make a difference," said Burton, sitting side-by-side with Kirkendall, who came to AFB through a Marshall internship.

The duo have been flying around the country to talk up the app and get feedback on refining its features. Since January, AccessNote -- recently updated to version 1.1 -- has seen more than 800 downloads, well on pace for their goal of 1,000 purchases in its first year of release.

Outside of school, Kirkendall is part of a team of young West Virginia app designers who founded Floco Apps, a mobile application development LLC split between Morgantown, Huntington and wherever the group's members may be.

"Our goal was to design something that would let Darren move around with the same quickness and efficiency as the sighted person's notes app," said Kirkendall, using Burton as an example.

But in order to do that they had to design a new interface that made the powerful features of the iPhone readily available to someone with little or no vision, he said. "We had to use keystrokes, we had to use tilts and just design something that wasn't so much button oriented."

AccessNote can be used by itself, with the iPhone's VoiceOver command providing instructions on, for instance, globally searching through a document. But its true power comes into play when teamed with a Bluetooth keyboard or Braille display keyboard.

Blind users of technology have for years relied upon expensive dedicated devices such as Braille and Speak, Type and Speak, the PacMate and other bigger, bulkier pieces of equipment that enable note-taking and communication.

Such devices can cost from $2,000 to $6,000 and more, said Burton. "I've used them since I was blind, and they've been very valuable. But it's very expensive. It's pretty big, pretty bulky. Maybe not as hip as running around with an iPhone or iPad, you know? Lots of serial ports, lots of old technology."

That's when he turned one day to Kirkendall and said: "Ricky, I'm kind of tired of the old school. What can we do on the iPhone, because the iPhone is a tremendous way to access information?"

Kirkendall took to the task. He had already designed a free app for AFB's AccessWorld, an online magazine dedicated to technology news for people who are blind or visually impaired. The app makes use of the iPhone's VoiceOver and accessibility features to help read out and search the publication.

So, since the iPhone already comes loaded with very good note-taking and navigation features and a voice system -- VoiceOver -- that can verbally guide one through every action the phone takes, what was needed was a user interface to exploit the phone's features more easily.

"At Floco we were kind of exploring how far we could take our mobile software in the assistive technology industry," Kirkendall said. "So we saw it as a natural progression to build this software that uses a QWERTY keyboard or a Braille pen to let blind people take notes in the same manner they would with a larger device."

By swiping the keyboard, the iPhone's VoiceOver function can read out -- icon to icon -- what option has been selected and how to access its features. Using AccessNotes with a wireless keyboard or Braille keyboard, and learning a core set of keyboard commands -- matched with VoiceOver telling you where you are -- and the iPhone's depths are more easily delved.

Using the iPhone's accelerometer function -- tipping the phone left and right and up and down to make it do things -- AccessNotes also allows you to switch between your notes if a keyboard is not at hand simply by tipping the phone.

"A note-taker is often used by us in a school setting, so you want to be able to take your lecture notes really quick and to be able to switch to another note, maybe your homework notes," said Burton.

AccessNote will also allow people who are blind or with low vision and working in a professional setting to keep pace with sighted colleagues in something as direct yet significant as taking and organizing meeting notes, he said.

"You're on the same level playing field and you can compete with your colleagues -- that's what a lot of this is about too," Burton said.

This is no insignificant matter in the working world -- or in the case of many blind people, their nonworking world, he added.

"The numbers are argued back and forth, but we have at least a 50 percent unemployment rate for people who are blind or have significant low vision."

So, if at the end of the year he and Kirkendall find that 1,000 to 2,000 people are using AccessNote to make their school and professional lives more productive and efficient, "We would think that would be a success," he said.

"If we sold something like 10,000, I'd think that, boy, we've really made a difference."

They hope the app also spurs yet more innovations, said Burton, whose technology work with the AFB is designed to do just that by improving the accessibility of products for people who are blind or have low vision.

"So we can go to the store and get things out of the box and not be second-class citizens," he said. "I want to be able to be independently doing things."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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