Qualcomm Inc. is stepping up the functionality of smartphones with the introduction of the RAY mobile device for blind and visually impaired people.

The new device is made available through Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative and Project RAY Ltd., which designs accessibility tools for an estimated 285 million blind and visually impaired people.

While it’s not uncommon for this group to supplement 2G mobile phones for voice telephony with an array of devices such as audiobook readers, color readers, navigation tools, raised Braille labels, special bar-code scanners and large-buttoned, voice-enabled MP3 players, the Project RAY device integrates the capabilities of smartphone technology with these multiple specialty devices into a single handset with 24/7 mobile broadband connectivity and a user interface designed for eye-free interaction.

The RAY mobile device is additionally synchronized with Israel’s Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped audiobooks content.

“The user touches any position on the screen and that position becomes the starting point for selecting an audiobook, messaging or other activity,” said Boaz Zilberman, CEO of Project RAY. “Navigation is enabled by a few simple finger movements in different directions. The phone’s built-in vibration capabilities and voice prompts provide user feedback and the UI learns to adapt its behavior based on users’ preferences and usage patterns.”

The user interface supports a rich set of services, including phone calls, text messaging with vocal read-out, navigation, object recognition, social network services, remote assistance, audiobook reading, and other leisure and entertainment offerings.

“Audiobooks, magazines and periodicals are an important method for accessing information for blind and visually impaired people, but the current system requires renting items by mail, which is not timely,” said Amos Beer, CEO of the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped. “Subscribers can now use RAY devices to easily access and download audio assets from the library over an advanced mobile broadband network, rather than waiting to receive CD copies.”

Under a trial project, 100 participants throughout Israel are testing the new system.