A Blind User's Profound Review of the iPhone

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Editor's Note: This review of the iPhone will probably be the deepest you'll ever read. Austin Seraphin is legally blind, though he can some light and color. He believes the device is the future of accessibility for the visually impaired. The powerful story he tells here explains why.

When I got an iPhone, my life changed forever.  I consider it the greatest thing to happen to the blind for a very long time, possibly ever. It offers unparalleled access to properly made applications, and changed my life in twenty-four hours.

When I first heard that Apple would release a touchpad cell phone with VoiceOver, the screen reading software used by Macs, I scoffed. The blind have gotten so used to lofty promises of a dream platform, only to receive some slapped together set of software with a minimally functional screen reader running on overpriced hardware which can't take a beating. I figured that Apple just wanted to get some good PR -- after all, how could a blind person even use a touchpad?

I laughed at the trendies, both sighted and blind, buying iPhones and enthusing about them. That changed when another blind friend with similar opinions also founded in long years of experience bought one, and just went nuts about how much she loved it, especially the touchpad interface. I could hardly believe it, and figured that I should reevaluate things.

I went to the AT&T store with my mom. It felt like coming full circle, since we went to an Apple store many years ago to get my Apple II/E. To my delight, the salesman knew about VoiceOver and how to activate it, though didn't know about how to use it. Fortunately, I read up on it before I went. Tap an item to hear it, double tap to activate it, swipe three fingers to scroll. You can also split-tap, where you hold down one location and tap another. This makes for more rapid entry once you understand it. It also has a rotor which you activate by turning your fingers like a dial. You can also double triple-finger tap to toggle speech, and a triple triple-finger tap turns on the awesome screen curtain, which disables the screen and camera.

Many reviews and people said to spend at least a half hour to an hour before passing judgment on using a touchpad interface with speech. I anticipated a weird and slightly arduous journey, especially when it came to using the keyboard. To my great surprise, I picked it up immediately. Within 30 seconds, I checked the weather. Next, I read some stock prices. Amazingly, it even renders stock charts, something the blind have never had access to. Sold.

We went up front to make the necessary arrangements. After a little work, we had things settled. I continued to excitedly ask questions, as did my mom. "Can he get text messages on this?" she asked. "Well, yes, but it doesn't read the message." the salesman said. Mom's hopes sunk, but mine didn't, since I understood the software enough. "Well, let's see, try it," I suggested. She pulled out her phone, and sent me a text message. Within seconds, my phone alerted me, and said her name. I simply swiped my finger and it read her message: "Hi Austin." She almost cried.

The other night, a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called Color Identifier. It uses the iPhone's camera, and speaks names of colors. It must use a table, because each color has an identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits. This puts the total at 16,777,216 colors, and I believe it. Some of them have very surreal names, such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. These names in combination with what feels like a rise in serotonin levels makes for a very psychedelic experience.

I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and color, but just in blurs, and objects don't really have a color, just light sources. When I first tried it at three o'clock in the morning, I couldn't figure out why it just reported black. After realizing that the screen curtain also disables the camera, I turned it off, but it still have very dark colors. Then I remembered that you actually need light to see, and it probably couldn't see much at night. I thought about light sources, and my interview I did for Get Lamp, a piece of interactive fiction.

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Austin Seraphin writes regularly at Behind the Curtain. Blind from birth, he started using computers at an early age as a means to better access the sighted world.

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