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Alibaba launching technologies to help visually-impaired shop online

Chinese retail titan Alibaba is set to launch ‘Smart Touch’ later this year – one of the innovations to derive from its DAMO Academy global research programme.

The launch, which is the result of its online marketplace Taobao’s work alongside China’s Tsinghua University, is part of the organisation’s efforts to improve the smartphone experience for the blind and partially sighted.

Detailing the technology, Alibaba’s official news service Alizila said users can pair a specially designed mobile app with a silicone film on top of their phone screen, creating what it described as “a new, intelligent interface”.

Apparently, the thin film has multiple textured touchscreen buttons that users can feel along the edges of the screen, representing typical digital commerce actions such as “confirm” or “return to homepage.” Each button can lead to different destinations depending on the app, such as “My Shopping Cart”.

Alibaba said that its Smart Touch offering also supports an “ear touch” feature, allowing blind and visually-impaired users a new way to listen to text without the need for headphones. Using a shape-finding algorithm, this feature can sense when users hold the phone to their ear, so it automatically routes the sound output from the loudspeaker to the earpiece speaker.

These developments, set to come to bear later in 2019, come after Taobao added Optical Character Recognition technology to its pages in October. This is an artificial intelligence-driven feature that reads text written on images to help the blind or visually impaired interact with its online platform.

China and 'technology prowess'

Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang, who will succeed founder Jack Ma as chairman of the business later this year, spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, offering some insights into the Alibaba business model and China’s position in the world.

He also spoke in depth about the culture for technology use among Chinese consumers, explaining that he “does feel a gap” between China and other countries when it comes to adopting digital technologies, according to Alizila. 

“Take the example, like today living in China, you don’t have to take your wallet with you,” he noted.

“You have your phone, you can do anything. You can make payment, you can buy some food, you can go to the cinema, you can take the subway. Anywhere you go, you just use your phone.”

Zhang added: “But now, in developed economies, most people are still living with a credit card. But that’s a real example to show why we move faster in China because, actually, the credit card is not that well-penetrated in China even now. So, which means that we skipped pretty much the credit card society and into a mobile society.”

He continued: “I think if we look at development of history, if the existing infrastructure is not good enough, it creates a new opportunity, which is you just go straight ahead to the next stage.”

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