Product information, such as information about allergens or instructions for use, have historically presented a problem for people with visual disabilities or those who otherwise have difficulty reading the text printed on the product packaging. However, newly developed QR-code technology can now allow anyone to access that same information—in multiple languages and through text-to-speech—simply by scanning the QR code with a smartphone. By using the screen-reader functionality that is already commonly available on most smartphones, information that is printed on packaging or other print-based media can be instantly converted into screen-readable text provided in the language of the user’s phone. This technology was developed through support from the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and its merits were established through extensive, nation-wide testing. Subsequently, it has been adopted by a variety of major production companies.
NEDO’s original press release is available here (in Japanese only)
According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), people with visual disabilities make up approximately 4% of the global population, or around 290 million people. It was also found that within that 4%, about one in ten people with visual disabilities can read braille. Even among that group, people from different countries often use different versions of braille. Although the format in which braille is written (a matrix of three dots in two columns) is essentially universal, individual sounds and words are represented differently from one version to the next, and no single version of braille is appropriate for all users. (At the same time, braille is an essential tool for those who need it, and its importance cannot be disregarded.)
Athletes with visual disabilities are expected to participate in roughly half of the 22 events scheduled for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, and visitors with visual impairments from around the world will come to attend the games. Some kind of accommodation will be needed in order to ensure that both the athletes and attendees will be able to get the information they need during their time in Japan.
This is just one example of a pervasive issue: people with impaired vision often face various barriers in accessing information that is available to people without visual impairments. This is particularly true of information presented in print. Addressing this issue requires both improvement of the technology used to access that information and improvements to the way information is provided.
The technology that Export Japan has developed to address this issue, called Accessible Code, is the result of a bold goal: to dramatically increase the accessibility of printed materials by making them available through QR code, technology that is already in use in a variety of industries throughout the world.
This increased accessibility is thanks to the increasingly pervasive global presence of smartphones. It is estimated that approximately 2 of every 5 people in the world own a smartphone, the vast majority of which include a screen-reader function as part of their accessibility options. This screen-reader function allows users who are blind or have impaired vision to operate their smartphones by reading out the text that is displayed on the screen. By pairing this function with a QR code containing the information to be communicated, accessing the printed text is as simple as scanning the code and having the smartphone read it aloud. The steps to activate the screen-reader function on an iPhone (called “VoiceOver”) are shown below. (Android devices have their own screen-reader software, called “Talkback.”)
A study on the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices by people with visual impairments showed that the usage of smartphones has doubled between 2013 and 2017.
How Does Accessible Code Work?
QR-code-reader apps have become incredibly prevalent, and hundreds of different versions are available on the respective app stores of the major platforms, not to mention the QR-code readers built into major communication apps such as Line and WeChat, or the scanner built directly into the iPhone camera. In total, it seems safe to say that virtually all smartphones are capable of scanning QR codes. Thanks to the continual development of QR-code technology, contemporary codes can be read from relatively far away and can be scanned even if only a portion of the code is visible.
Once the code has been scanned, the text remains displayed on the smartphone screen, where it can be read aloud using either of the screen-reader functions mentioned above. During the course of developing Accessible Code, it was determined through a series of tests conducted with volunteers from across the country that users with visual impairments are consistently able to find and scan a QR code printed on a variety of different objects.
The QR codes themselves are produced using QR Translator, a web-based service that allows users to create pages with text and images in multiple languages, as well as accompanying QR codes. By printing one of these QR codes on the packaging of a product such as a food, information such as nutritional content or ingredients can be made available as text-to-speech and in multiple languages for anyone who scans the code.
Depending on the type of product packaging, it is also possible to add tactile markers (patent pending) that make it easier to identify the location of the QR code through touch alone. The standards for the tactile markers are as follows:
- The dimensions of the QR code must be at least 10 mm on each side, with a 3-millimeter margin on each side, for a total footprint of 16×16 millimeters (±1 mm).
- A raised dot of 1 millimeter in diameter (identical in size to one JIS-standard braille dot) should be placed at each of the four corners of the margins. Alternatively, the outer perimeter of the margins can be debossed.
- Each side of the QR code should contain no more than 29 cells (for a maximum size of 29 rows and 29 columns).
- In order to avoid unintentional scanning, the product’s bar code should not be printed on the same side of the packaging as the Accessible Code.
Additionally, the code should be printed in black-and-white to make it easier to locate for those with failing eyesight or color blindness. Prototypes of various packaging schemes following these guidelines have already been produced by a major manufacturer, with plans to implement Accessible Code on several products. This is hoped to be the first of several steps toward establishing widespread accessibility practices across several industries.
The Story of Accessible Code’s Development
In August of 2016, PIJIN was contacted by Kobe Lighthouse, a support and advocacy group for people with visual impairments, asking whether the QR Translator app could be adapted to include text-to-speech functionality.
PIJIN consulted extensively with Kobe Lighthouse in order to fully understand the specific problems to be addressed, and it gradually became clear that a standardized QR code, which could be printed on a variety of materials and products, would be the best solution for providing information in the form of audio.
Working from this understanding, PIJIN collaborated with several different organizations around the country to conduct widespread testing of the QR Code Reader app and also applied for participation in the Initiative to Develop Practically Applicable Welfare Equipment to Remedy Common Problems (課題解決型福祉用具実用化開発支援事業) that is overseen by NEDO. Development of Accessible Code continued from May 2017 to March 2019. Through widespread testing involving more than 100 participants from around the country, PIJIN was able to collect extensive data on the specific factors and considerations affecting the code’s effectiveness (such as how easily it can be found and scanned). Product packaging featuring Accessible Code was first presented at the August 2018 Ideation Hackathon organized by web designer i-Collaboration Kobe, where it was seen by representatives of a major manufacturer. Products featuring Accessible Code are being developed for release by that manufacturer.
About the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO)
As the executive governmental agency in charge of scientific and technological research, NEDO promotes and supports the national projects that allows Japan’s industries to be able compete on the international market, promotes technological innovation, and facilitates the discovery of new markets and revitalization of the economy. NEDO also operates Innovation Japan, a trade fair and business-matching event aimed at promoting technological innovations that contribute to society.
About Kobe Lighthouse
Founded in 2013, Kobe Lighthouse is a non-profit organization that provides support and advocacy for individuals who are blind or have other visual impairments. The company’s chairman, Katsumi Ota, was inspired to start the company when he lost his vision at the young age of 25 and realized that he wanted to support people with visual impairments in both their private and professional lives. For his work on Accessible Code as chairman of Kobe Lighthouse, Ota received the “Award for Work Toward a Universal Society” (ユニバーサル社会づくり賞会長賞) from Hyogo Prefecture.
About i-Collaboration Kobe
A non-profit organization based in Kobe, i-Collaboration holds seminars and workshops aimed toward developing technologies to support people with various disabilities. They are particularly involved in improving online accessibility for people who browse the internet using screen-readers and other assistive technology, and they have guided many businesses and municipal governments in making their websites more accessible.
PIJIN are the developers of QR Translator, a service that is used around the world (in countries such as America, China, Russia, and in the EU) to easily create, manage, and edit QR codes that contain multilingual information. QR Translator codes can be found at many areas frequented by tourists, such as at Fushimi Waseda-taisha shrine and on the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gov’t Building. It is also printed on the label of Masumi, a well-known sake and is in use at the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris.