Scientists from a Ho Chi Minh City university have made the dream of the visually challenged being able to use smartphones a reality by developing an Android app capable of reading what the user has touched on a device’s screen aloud in Vietnamese.
Whenever users leave their fingertips on the screen for a few seconds, the VOS application will recognize the apps they are pointing to and read the names out loud in a Hanoi accent.
It will help blind users determine whether they are accessing the right apps, “as if there were someone behind telling them what to do with the smartphone,” one of the app developers said.
VOS, which stands for Voice of Southern Vietnam, was developed by scientists from the Artificial Intelligence Lab (AILab) of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science, under an order by the Ministry of Information and Communications.
“We had to build up a sound database that covers more than 7,000 different Vietnamese words,” Associate Professor Vu Hai Quan, Ph.D., leader of the AILab team, said.
“We also had to record 1,357 English words that are widely used on mobile phones, and 939 Vietnamese words without accents.”
Thanks to this huge database, the VOS app can even read numbers, scientific symbols, abbreviations, and unaccented Vietnamese texts, he added.
Quan said VOS is the first-ever Vietnamese text-to-speech app running on mobile platforms.
“The app works well with Android-based screen readers,” he said.
A screen reader is a software application that attempts to identify and interpret what is being displayed on the screen, and the interpretation is then re-presented to the user with text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille output device.
Ho Minh Nhat, a team member, said the VOS app is compatible with more than 80 percent of smartphone models available on the market.
Asked why AILab chose to develop the VOS on Android instead of other mobile operating systems, Quan pointed to the dominance of the Google-backed platform on the market.
Android is leading the market with an 81.3 percent market share, followed by iOS at 13.4 percent, and Windows Phone, 4.1 percent, according to the associate professor.
“We wanted to create a product that is readily available to any visually impaired users,” he added.
Vietnam currently has around two million visually challenged people, according to an estimate by the World Health Organization.
Nguyen Quoc Phong, director of a charitable organization that provides accommodation for the blind in Ho Chi Minh City, said his first-hand experience with the app is impressive.
“The speech produced by the VOS has a very good accent,” he said.
“Wherever my fingertips go on the screen, I receive full directions from the app.”
Phong underlined that the VOS app “clears hurdles the visually impaired used to face when using smartphones.”
VOS debuted on Google Play on December 18 and is available for free download. Users are required to have a screen reader such as Talk Back on their handsets before installing the app