Beginning this week, blind Americans have the opportunity to use the first smartphone specifically designed to make their lives easier to navigate. Odin Mobile is the first company to offer the RAY Huawei Vision phone, a device that lets blind users not only make phone calls, but also allows them to send text messages, search the Internet, identify the denomination of cash, recognize colors, and access over 100,000 audio books and magazines. All these features are built into the RAY device, and it’s based on technology developed in Israel.

Project Ray has been in development for several years by a team that includes several veterans of the Israeli telecommunications industry, including the group’s CEO Boaz Zilberman. “I think we have developed a life-changing device that will make life much easier for blind people,” he told the Times of Israel in a recent interview. “We have built a breakthrough user interface that defines a new language for human-device interaction that is built, ground-up, for eye-free operation.” The same technology that makes life easier for the sighted can be used to help make the blind more independent, said Zilberman, letting them interact more freely with the world around them – in a sense, helping them to “see” again.

The phone allows users to navigate everything by voice and touch, providing responsive voice feedback to guide users as needed. All actions users take are launched by sliding on the screen, and lifting the finger when the appropriate button is touched; so, for example, when a user slides his finger and hits the Contacts app, the phone will read out the word “Contacts”; when the user lifts his finger, the contact app is opened, and the phone calls out the name of the contact as the user slides his finger over it. When he hears the name of the desired contact, the user lifts his finger, and the phone dials the number.

This active response system makes much more sense for sightless navigation, as it allows users to easily correct wrong choices, letting them quickly fix mistakes and access the app they want, said Zilberman. The same selection principle works throughout the phone’s functions; users swipe the screen, hitting the various apps on the home screen, and when they hear the name of the appropriate app, they lift their finger and the app opens. The same system works with the device’s other apps, including text messaging and social networking apps.

The device has a GPS chip as well; when a user swipes the location app, the device reads out the address or landmark the user is currently in front of. RAY uses the same technology to inform an individual which bill he has taken out of his wallet; when a user points the device at money, its camera identifies the denomination and reads it off to the user. In the same way, RAY can even identify colors of objects for users. Future features will include a NFC (Near Field Communication) chip, allowing the phone to read out information within a certain range. Thus, a blind user will be able to hear what’s written on the label of a medicine bottle that has a NFC sticker on it, said Zilberman,

Perhaps the most important feature of RAY is its library app, said Zilberman, “Blind people are very dependent on libraries for information and entertainment – an audiobook or magazine is often their only entertainment.” Libraries, which send out books and magazines on CD, are an essential link to the the world for the blind – but ordering and returning the CDs to the library is a big hassle for many, as is the possibility that they may lose the discs. The RAY device solves this issue by connecting users to several libraries for the blind in the US, where users can download (using voice commands) books or periodicals, and hear them on their device instantly, instead of having to wait for weeks until their audio book arrives in the mail.

Last year, telecom giant Qualcomm adopted Project RAY as part of its Wireless Reach initiative, with the intention of commercializing the device and offering it at a reasonable price to the blind (for the $299.99 price tag, users get a device that replaces equipment and services that they would have had to pay thousands of dollars to otherwise acquire, said Zilberman).

“Together with Odin Mobile, and with the initial and invaluable support of Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach program, we are excited to bring the affordable, lifestyle-changing benefits of smartphone technology and services to millions of blind and visually impaired people throughout the United States,” said Zilberman. “Our RAY smartphone combined with Odin Mobile’s full-cellular services for the blind and visually impaired, will finally bring to this important community the same services available to the mainstream full-sighted community.”

“We are proud to work with Project RAY and support their objective of bringing a mobile device to market that supports blind and visually impaired people so they can access resources and information independently,” said Kristin Atkins, Senior Director of Government Affairs  for Qualcomm. “Our team at Qualcomm Israel worked closely with Project RAY on the operational and product efforts of the first RAY device enabling independence and a richer social life for users by providing an all-in-one, independent-living companion capable of eye-free input, text-to-speech, access to content, navigation, label recognition, augmented reality and integration with social networks. This is a great example of how working with partners, we can help improve people’s lives with the latest technology.”