A new mobile app prototype called Brailletouch allows users to write quickly and accurately using gestures on their smartphone touchscreen - and without looking at the screen. The free and open source prototype, currently working on iPhone and iPad devices, uses the Braille writing system, and it is envisaged it may one day be used by any smartphone user with a need for eyes-free writing or texting.

In early testing of the iPhone version, subjects have achieved perfectly respectable speeds of 32 words per minute with an accuracy of 92 percent - a rate that the researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology claim is six times that of rival eyes-free prototypes.

Though the app is gesture-based it still users soft "keys", but because there are only six of them, there is ample room on a typical smartphone touchscreen. In use, the fingers remain relatively still, ideally holding the device face down and typing with six fingers in consort - one for each key. The act of typing with the app closely mirrors that of using a Braille standard keyboard. The app speaks each of the letters typed aloud so that it is clear if typing errors are made.

"You don't have to know how to read Braille," said principal investigator Mario Romero. "And we've determined through our user studies that users can pick up [typing Braille], and without any training start typing faster than most people type on a QWERTY keyboard." Romero says it took him and his colleagues a few hours with the app to pick up the Braille writing system.

Although it is hoped many smartphone users will adopt the app, a particular aim of the project is to develop a portable system for the visually impaired users that would be more practical than lugging around, connecting and protecting a US$1700 Braille keyboard. In this respect its aspirations are similar to Adam Duran's tablet app we looked at last October.

The Brailletouch app won the MobileHCI 2011 competition for design. An Android version of the app is currently under development. You can see a demo of the iPhone version in use below.

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