With Australia's mobile phone penetration now sitting at around 100 per cent, it's easy to forget that there are still groups for whom the technology remains out of reach.
Rhys Cooper became aware of this during the five years he spent working with intellectually disabled adults. Modern mobile phones were simply too complex with too many options to be used easily. So last year he formed a company, Orange Dot, and set about creating a new type of phone that would be usable by a wide group of both intellectually and visually disabled people.
Earlier this year he built his first prototype based on a touchscreen phone from HTC, and then in May was named the winner in the Freelance category of the MEX Mobile User Experience Awards in London.
Cooper says winning the award has been useful for raising Orange Dot's profile as it begins actively testing its prototype. Orange Dot's work consists primarily of a new user interface for the phone, which features nine large pictures of the most frequently called people in the user's directory. The interface can scroll through to more users, or can display a large-format dialling pad.
All menus have been eliminated, and the interface is locked, meaning that it is impossible to accidentally delete contacts from the handset. The handset will also speak the name of the person being called to provide an extra level of feedback.
"No matter what they are doing on the phone they won't affect the integrity of the interface and can't accidentally delete their contacts," Cooper says. Orange Dot is also developing a physical grid that can be layered over the touchscreen to give tactile feedback to visually-impaired users.
Contacts can be remotely updated on the handset, and Cooper has also developed an application that transmits the location of the handset to a third party at regular intervals or at the request of the user. However, he says there are still some privacy considerations to be worked out with this feature.
"Obviously if they are blind or lost they can't read a street sign, the idea is that the device tells the person on the other end where they are via a map," Cooper says.
The company is now in its testing phase, and Cooper hopes to have a version of the software available for commercial download this year, possibly paired with suitable grid overlays. "We're happy with the progress that we've made, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback," Cooper says. "I'm confident that by the end of the year we'll have something."
Cooper is looking at different ways of getting phones to market, possibly as a downloadable application that can be paired with a grid. Orange Dot has received ongoing support from HTC in terms of handsets, although Cooper says he has not ruled out working directly with a manufacturer to create phones directly to Orange Dot's specifications.
"That would be the ideal, but if we can release something that still delivers our interface in a form that provides value to the users, we'll still do that," he says.
Cooper was a participant in the 2008 Mobile Enterprise Growth Alliance (MEGA) program, a not-for-profit entrepreneurship and mentoring program for people with ideas for new mobile phone content and applications. The next round of MEGA will take place in Victoria, and applications close on 5 July.