Alibaba’s Adhesive Buttons Help the Visually Impaired Interact With Smartphones

March 19, 2019, 3:56 AM UTC

A design team led by DAMO Academy, the $15 billion research initiative formed by China’s premier e-commerce site, Alibaba, is working to make smartphones more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

There are more than 1.4 billion smartphones in China, more than anywhere else in the world. China also has the highest population of visually impaired people, according to the latest data available from the World Health Organization.

“For people like us [the visually unimpaired], we have so many technologies, tools, and apps that make us better, happier,” said Chen Zhao, the research lead for the DAMO Academy’s natural human computer interaction lab, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore earlier this month. “We’re spoiled by technology, but there are so many people that are left out.”

Zhao’s lab designs systems for interacting with technology using the five basic human senses: touch, sight, hearing, even taste and smell. At the Fortune conference, Zhao demonstrated the haptic solution her team has created to help visually impaired people interact with smartphone apps.

The solution is a combination of software, called Smart Touch, and hardware, called Braille Buttons. The six buttons adhere to the lower flanks of a phone’s screen, with three buttons aligned vertically on each side.

The buttons on the left always provide the same function: global navigation for the device. The top button prompts the software to read-out the screen’s current visual output; the middle button tells the voice to stop. The buttons on the right side, meanwhile, are dynamic, offering different functionality depending upon the app in use.

Zhao demonstrated the auto-read function to the audience at Brainstorm Design. At the touch of a button, a robotic Chinese voice emerged from Zhao’s phone, speaking almost too quickly to follow. “When I first heard that voice, I thought it was a mistake and told the team to fix it,” Zhao said, noting the speed. “But the real voice is three times faster than this.”

Why so speedy? Zhao said her research team found that many people with visual impairments process speech much faster than people with no sight difficulties. As a designer, that discovery reminded Zhao how important it is to work with clients to develop a solution together—rather than parachuting in and expecting to have the answer.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.