Rivo — the keypad for accessible smartphones

Image of RiVO 1

Rivo (Remote Interface to Voice Over) is a small wireless Bluetooth keypad, designed to assist blind and visually impaired people to use their smartphones and tablets more easily and quickly. Initially designed to work with Apple’s VoiceOver, the software that can read any contents shown on iPhone and iPad screens, the device is now compatible also with TalkBack and Android smartphones. Rivo controls smartphones with extensive commands, supports typing and editing text, redirects every sound from smartphones to its speaker and earphone jack, delivers user voice captured from its microphone to the iPhone for Siri or phone calls and it can be used also as an audio remote controller.

The iPhone and Stevie Wonder

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the community of blind and visually impaired feared to be left behind, being unable to use touchscreens. Legend says that Stevie Wonder, the iconic Motown blind singer, directly called Steve Jobs soliciting an accessible and inclusive solution for iPhones. Accessibility features were officially added in Apple operating systems for iMacs and Macbooks since 2005, with the release of MacOS X 10.4 Tiger, although a preview was available from the previous version. VoiceOver was later added to the iPod Shuffle to work for all users, as a voice controller in absence of a touchscreen. From 2009 and the iPhone 3GS version VoiceOver is included by default also in iOS (the operating system for Apple iPhone, iPod and iPad).

iPhone 3GS VoiceOver tutorial YouTube video

During a concert in 2011 Stevie Wonder publicly thanked Steve Jobs for making Apple devices accessible to the blind, deaf and users with physical disabilities, at the time when the Apple founder was fighting with cancer:

“I want you all to give a hand to someone that you know whose health is very bad at this time. His company took the challenge in making his technology accessible to everyone, in the spirit of caring and moving the world forward: Steve Jobs. Because there’s nothing on the iPhone or the iPad that you can do that I can’t do. As a matter of fact, I can be talking to you, you can be looking at me, and I can be doing whatever I need to do and you don’t even know what I’m doing. Yeah!”

In March 2018 coincidentally also Mobience, the manufacturer of Rivo, met Stevie Wonder at the CSUN (California State University Northridge) Assistive Technology Conference, an important event in the US, focused only on technological solutions for the community of disabled, where Mobience unveiled the Rivo 2 on the American market.

Jaewoo Ahn, founder of Mobience, with Stevie Wonder at CSUN Assistive Technology Conference 2018.

From crisis to an unforeseen opportunity

Founded by Jaewoo Ahn, a KAIST graduate in Mathematics and PhD in Computer Science from Postech (Pohang University of Science and Technology), Mobience is a manufacturing SME that used to be in the supply chain of Korean telecom operators and chaebols (i.e. diversified conglomerates). In 2010 Mobience team was approached informally by SK Telecom, when they were launching the Samsung Omnia smartphones with the Windows Mobile operating system. Fearing some problems in the responsiveness of the touchscreen, they requested Mr Ahn and partners to manufacture ten thousand Bluetooth alphanumeric keypads, as a complementary device to be sold with the Omnia phones. At the time the BlackBerry phones with their physical mini keyboards were still very popular, especially among business users (BlackBerry sales will peak in 2011 at more than fifty million units in retail shipments) and the reaction and transition of customers to touchscreen only smartphones was maybe not completely clear for telecom operators.

A 2010 YouTube video of RiVO with a Galaxy smartphone

However after the keypads were ready to be shipped, SK Telecom did not proceed with the order, leaving Mobience on the brink of bankruptcy. Samsung decided to discontinue the Omnia smartphones, launching the first Galaxy model running Android. Mobience was left reeling and evaluating few options: 1) suing SK Telecom with the prospect of a long legal dispute, which, irrespective of the outcome, would have meant the end for future orders from the largest Korean telecom company or 2) finding an alternative use for the ten thousand devices they had in stock. Opening bank loans to stay afloat, Mobience found out that visually impaired users preferred physical keypads in several cases (e.g. smart banking or dialling phone numbers), instead of using voice only solutions with smartphones. They tweaked the firmware, software interface and part of the hardware of the device to work with Apple VoiceOver software on iPhones, iPod and later iPad, rebranding it RiVO, an acronym for Remote Interface to Voice Over. During the following years Mobience managed to sell more than five thousand devices they had in the warehouse, continuously correcting bugs and glitches in the software and in the usage of the keypad.

RiVO 1 keypad

According to Mobience, almost ninety percent of visual impaired and blind users prefer iPhones over Android smartphones, probably for the seamless experience of VoiceOver compared to TalkBack. Mr Ahn confirms that iOS has less bugs and glitches than Android and that Apple has been much more responsive in correcting them than Google. Although Apple was not the first high tech company to cater for users with disabilities (Microsoft has had accessibility features ever since Windows 95), they have constantly improved those features, perhaps foreseeing the potential of voice recognition, now clearly evident in products such as Amazon Alexa and Echo.

Apple — Accessibility — Sady YouTube video

A large niche market

According to the World Blind Union there are two hundred and fifty million visually impaired individuals around the world. Most of them are senior, having lost visual acuity after traumas or as side effect of a wide range of diseases.

In the US the National Federation of the Blind reports a 2015 community service survey, conducted by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute (EDI), estimating 7.3 million non institutionalized adults with a visual disability, of whom almost 3 million are male older than 65 years old and over 5 million are predominantly of white ethnicity. In Europe the World Health Organization estimates twenty five million visually impaired individuals, 2.5 million of whom are blind people and 23.8 million low vision people, in 2010 statistics. The European Blind Union (EBU), however, tends toward a higher estimate of 30 million visually impaired, almost 90% of whom are over 65 years old (age related eye conditions being the most common cause of sight loss in Europe). This higher figure takes into account the prevalence of sight-loss in an increasing population of elderly people in Europe, which is extremely difficult to census accurately, and also the fact that a number of people, who suffer from varying degrees of sight loss, either ignore this or decide not to declare their condition for personal reasons.

Rivo 2

Mobience has recently released in April 2018 the second version of the Rivo with improved firmware and hardware. In only three months they have already delivered more than one thousand Rivo 2, exclusively relying on users referral and word of mouth reviews. Mobience aims to enter officially the range of accessories available in Apple stores, while also continuously improving the user experience for owners of Android smartphones.

Rivo 2 keypad. The name has now changed from RiVO to Rivo to be more user friendly with screen reading applications (which before were reading “capital R , i, capital V, capital O”).

Mobience is currently incubating in the Software Convergence Cluster BI-Plex Songdo Center in Incheon. Similarly to their users, through the years they suffered discrimination, when applying for office space and accelerating programmes with governmental and private startup incubators in Korea. The market, Rivo is aimed at, is perceived too limited and the company mission statement “to help the blind people and visually disabled to see again” (in the words of Mr Ahn) seems not sufficiently visionary: quite disappointing in the year when Korea has hosted the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympics. Still far away from a full endorsement, however, the Ministry of Science and ICT invited Mobience to participate in their booth together with other promising startups, during the SoftWave 2018 exhibition held in Seoul COEX.

Mobience is probably one of very few companies in Korea to have hired a visually impaired female employee in Korea, Ms Yura Jung, who now works as a Director for product development and after sales support. In a time and in a country when/where employment opportunities are difficult, especially for young and female workers, only one percent of blind and visually disabled persons in Korea are employed, sadly for the great majority in massage centers. Moreover Mobience informs that in their knowledge, so far, only two legally blind candidates managed to pass the extremely rigorous examination to be admitted to practice law in private or public functions, while abroad the legal profession is more open to lawyers and attorneys with visual disabilities.

On a mission to make the smartphones accessible

Mobile phones and smartphones are transformative devices: in the span of a generation, from remote villages in Africa to cities in Singapore, they have become indispensable tools, which have radically changed the way we communicate, work, drive, travel, purchase, pay, listen to music, photograph, watch movies, exercise, etc. Smartphones are even more indispensable to persons with disabilities, but few companies have catered for the needs of these users: probably only Mobience has developed a smart keypad that complement screen reading apps. Some RiVO 1 users has not upgraded or changed smartphones to keep using the keypad, complaining with Mobience for not being notified of the new version. It is an incredible feat, considering the unforeseen and serendipitous start, but the Mobience team is now fully aware of the impact, Rivo has on the life of their users, and is committed to improve the smartphone user experience with new innovations.