Could the smartphone, which has helped so many become more independent, informed and efficient, do the same for blind users?

Today, most blind and visually impaired people use their cellphones for voice calls only. If they want a navigation tool, book reader, or music player, they need specialty — i.e., very expensive — equipment. But now a new smartphone developed by Israelis packs all those functions into a single device that can be used via sound and touch, and provides audio feedback as needed.

The phone, called Project Ray, has been in development for several years by a team that includes several veterans of the Israeli telecommunications industry. One of them is Boaz Zilberman, CEO of the group. “I think we have developed a life-changing device that will make life much easier for blind people,” he told The Times of Israel. “We have built a breakthrough user interface that defines a new language for human-device interaction, built ground-up for eye-free operation.”

The same smartphone 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.

On most touchscreen phones, you click on an icon to open an application. Since users of the Project Ray phone cannot see the icons they need to click on, the interface was designed so that all apps and services are launched by sliding a finger on the screen and lifting the finger when the appropriate icon 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. The user again swipes a finger on the screen, and the phone reads out the name of each contact as the user passes over it. When he hear the contact he wants, the user lifts his finger and the phone dials the number.

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 devices reads out the address or landmark the user is currently in front of. It will also, in the very near future, include a feature that will utilize 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 the label of a medicine bottle that has a NFC sticker on it.

But the device’s crown jewel, said Zilberman, is its library app. “Blind people are very dependent on libraries for information and entertainment — an audiobook or magazine is often their only entertainment. We have a voice-driven app that lets them connect to Israel’s Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped.”

Instead of having to send away for CDs from the library, adding them to an MP3, and taking the chance that the disc will be lost or damaged, they can just listen to any content they want directly on the phone just by selecting it. Users can scroll and choose (using the lift-the-finger system described above) to select something on the screen, or just call the library directly from the phone and voice-order a selection. The audiobook or magazine is downloaded to the device, the user opens the book-reading app, and the phone reads the contents of the book or magazine to the user.

Zilberman, as well as a number of key people in the company, worked in the past at the Israeli R&D center of mobile tech company Qualcomm, which has partnered with Project Ray to bring the phone to market. The phone will go on sale in Israel in the coming months, and will available in a European market (probably the UK, said Zilberman) in the first three months of 2013, with the help of Qualcomm.

Qualcomm adopted Project Ray as part of its Wireless Reach initiative, in which “Qualcomm technology can improve people’s lives, and we are proud to support this important program,” said company executive vice president Don Rosenberg. “We believe the Project Ray device will enhance the ability of blind and visually impaired people to access resources and information independently,” he added.