Thanks to our gadgets, we're gained a slew of superhero-like skills. We're able send messages without ever typing a word, monitor a traffic jam on the other side of the country, and call up the entire history of a building just by taking its photo.
At the same time, not everyone is reaping equal rewards from the latest advances in hardware and software. Sumit Dagar, a filmmaker, interaction designer, and TED fellow from India, worries that new technologies are putting handicapped individuals at a greater disadvantage. Others agree: an advocacy group for the blind recently petitioned the Justice Department to investigate whether the use Google Apps by colleges is discriminating against blind students and faculty.
"Technology is giving everyone superpowers," Dagar told the Huffington Post in an interview. "But handicapped people are not able to tap into these cool new features and the technology is making them even more disabled."
In an effort to help disabled users tap into the "superpowers" afforded by new technology, Dagar has designed a "Braille phone" for the blind that features an interactive, touch-responsive rubber display panel that would present text, video, maps, and other information as raised lines and dots.
The concept phone, which Dagar presented at the 2011 TED conference, offers a twist on the typical touchscreen: whereas existing smartphones display pixels as colors, the moving screen of Dagar's phone would translate pixels into height. For example, a text message might appear in Braille, while a tic-tac-toe game would be shown in elevated lines, circles, and X's.
The Braille phone concept is an intriguing one that had TED attendees buzzing, but it is unlikely that such a phone will be available in the near future.
Dagar acknowledges there are considerable difficulties that must be overcome, especially with regard to building the tactile surface of the interactive screen.
"Coding is not the technical challenge, the surface is the technical challenge," Dagar said. "Creating the surface itself is a hardware problem--at least for me, but certainly not for researchers working in materials."
Getting electronics manufacturers to invest in the research and development of such a phone, which would not have the mainstream appeal--and thus revenue potential--of gadgets like the iPhone, is another hurdle.
Still, Dagar plans to push forward with his concept and will be working on building a prototype of the phone.
"There has been immense interest [in the Braille phone] from people who have blind people in their family," he said. "These features could totally change the world for someone who is blind."