VoKnow: Enabling The Blind And Elderly To Hear The News On Their Smartphones

Logo for VoKnowFrank Qiu likes to read up on the news, often through his personalized RSS feed on the Internet. Yet, since he graduated from Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth with an MBA in 2009, he was on the road so frequently that, even with an iPhone in hand, he found it difficult to keep up with the news in his spare time. And he suffers from motion sickness, so he needed a way to follow the news for more than a few minutes at a time in a moving train or behind the wheel. So Qiu searched for an iPhone app which could help him listen to published news items by audio. Unable to find one, he developed his own mobile app and launched it in August 2010.

VoKnow, as Qiu’s app for the iPhone, iPad and Android is called, converts published news content from the Internet into audio format, and then reads the content out loud to the listener — a time saver for busy people on the go, and a lifesaver for those with motion sickness and, as it turns out, those with blindness or vision problems.

Over a decade ago, the majority of news sources was in printed form, or delivered via television or the radio. As news content migrated to the Internet in recent years, and exploded with informal sources such as blogs and even Twitter, it became a major challenge for blind and visually-impaired people to read and understand the news.  Screen readers have enabled blind people to access the Internet, but most are desktop-based and tend to also include descriptions of pictures and website layouts. Until VoKnow came along, there was no equivalent mobile application that specifically targeted online news feeds for audio transcription without also including picture descriptions — which are not always relevant if one just wants to listen to the news.  With RSS and Twitter feeds making it easier for people to aggregate disparate streams of news from the Internet, it was only logical for Qiu to take these feeds and convert them into audio in real-time so that anyone could listen to them, without making the effort to search through the information on his or her own.

Because Qiu had not originally designed VoKnow with blind people in mind, he collected feedback from some blind users.  He has also been reaching out to schools for the blind in Boston for feedback on his service.  It turned out that the blind liked to listen to material at a faster speed than those without vision problems, so he modified VoKnow to include faster listening speeds. He is also surveying senior citizens (who typically have vision loss) in the Boston area for additional insight and may add or change features in VoKnow to accommodate this segment.

In a world where baby boomers are reaching retirement age — and about to change senior citizenship as we know it — and people with blindness are increasingly enjoying a better quality of life, VoKnow appears to be uniquely positioned to take advantage of these fast-growing demographic segments. For someone who just wanted to listen to his favorite news websites, this wasn’t a bad way for Qiu to solve his problem.

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