UK-based mobile phone company OwnFone has launched what it says is the world’s first commercially-available braille mobile phone. The OwnFone is a simple, light and low-cost device that can be set up with braille quick-dial buttons. It is customized by the user before being 3D-printed by OwnFone.
Mobile phones obviously have the potential to be hugely beneficial for the blind and partially-sighted, but the visual nature of today's phone can largely or entirely preclude those with sight problems from using them. Similarly, braille is simply not an option where modern, touch-screen smartphones are concerned. Despite this, much of the advice for those with sight difficulties focuses around apps or accessibility settings that can improve standard devices.
The OwnFone takes a different approach, by stripping back the mobile phone to just its basic functionality and de-cluttering the fascia. The device is about the size of a credit card and saves only the user's most necessary contacts. It has a handful of buttons on its front, each pre-programmed with a direct action, such as increasing or decreasing the volume and switching the phone on or off. Up to four braille quick-dial buttons can also be set up, along with up to twelve buttons with either images or printed names.
Users can choose to have their name printed at the top of the phone and their number printed on the back for convenience. The quick-dial buttons are set up via the phone builder tool on the OwnFone website, with the user inputting the names and phone numbers of their required contacts (presumably with the aid of a sighted helper). A quick-dial button for the emergency services can be added too. A variety of design options are available for the OwnFone, which are also applied via the website.
Once the user has designed their OwnPhone, the company 3D-prints the device and sends it to the user. The use of 3D printing enables the company to minimize costs, as well as the lead-time between orders being placed and devices delivered. If a user wishes to change their quick-dial numbers, the device can be updated and reprinted for £10 (US$17).
The OwnFone could be useful for day-to-day use, but it could also serve as a backup emergency phone. When the device is switched off, its battery will hold its charge for up to a year.
OwnFone was initially launched in 2012 as the the world’s first custom-printed mobile phone. The company says it has a patent pending for its addition of braille buttons.
"In the past the cost of developing a braille phone vs. the market size has been a barrier to entry," says OwnFone founder Tom Sunderland in a press release. "3D printing provides a fast and affordable way to overcome this barrier."
The braille version of the OwnFone is currently only available in the UK, retailing from £60 ($101).