Google today announced the launch of a virtual braille keyboard for Android that’s designed to enable those with low vision or blindness to type on their phones without additional hardware. The tech giant says it collaborated with braille developers and users to create it, and to ensure it can be used anywhere a user would normally type — including social media, text messaging, and email apps.
According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment or blindness. To address their needs, Google previously developed and released BrailleBack, an accessibility service for Android that helps users make use of braille devices, but BrailleBack didn’t offer on-screen typing.
The new braille keyboard, which will roll out to devices running Android 5.0 or newer via an update to the Android Accessibility Suite on the Google Play Store, is activated with a three-finger swipe up on the screen. It supports braille grade 1 and grade 2 in English (with additional languages to follow) and it can be turned on or off as simply as switching between international keyboards.
The keyboard uses a standard 6-key layout and each key represents one of 6 braille dots which, when tapped, make any letter or symbol. For example:
- Tap dot 1 to type the letter A.
- Tap dots 1 and 2 to type the letter B.
- Tap dots 1 and 4 to type the letter C.
- Tap dots 1, 4, and 5 to type the letter D.
A swipe left deletes a letter, while a two-finger swipe left deletes a word. Swiping right adds a space, while a two-finger swipe right or up inserts a new line or text, respectively.
“Today, braille displays make typing accessible on most phones and computers through a physical braille keyboard. But it can be time-consuming to connect an external device each time you want to type something quickly on your phone,” wrote Android Accessibility product manager Brian Kemler in a blog post. “As part of our mission to make the world’s information universally accessible, we hope this keyboard can broadly expand braille literacy and exposure among blind and low vision people.”
The braille keyboard is the latest accessibility effort from Google, following on the heels of others announced at the tech giant’s I/O 2019 developer conference, including Project Euphonia. Another — Live Relay — is designed to assist deaf users, while Project Diva aims to give people with various disabilities some independence and autonomy via Google Assistant.
To this end, the braille keyboard complements Sound Amplifier, which boosts audio in wired headphones by increasing quiet sounds while “not over-boosting loud sounds.” Back in 2018, Google brought native hearing aid support to Android. More recently, Google brought detailed voice guidance and new types of verbal announcements for walking trips to Google Maps. And it introduced Live Caption, a feature for select Android devices that provides real-time on-device speech transcription for any media.