Commentary: Using Mobile Devices As Virtual Eyes

It is only the beginning of 2016, but it already looks like this year has a lot of revolutionary innovations in assistive technology! BlindTool is a recently developed Smartphone app that identifies objects for blind and visually impaired individuals. In other words, it serves as a pair of eyes for those of us who are blind or have low vision. The Android app was developed by Joseph Paul Cohen, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Cohen’s idea for this app came after spending some time working with a blind computer programmer.


By pointing the phone to whatever object a user wishes to identify, the app will call out the name in a matter of seconds. As soon as the app identifies an object, and is 90 percent sure of what it is, it will rapidly vibrate and say its name. As with any new technology, BlindTool isn’t necessarily flawless. It might confuse an object with a similar thing or even with something completely unrelated. A picture frame might be mistaken for a microwave, a coffee cup for a bowl of soup, and – according to one user – a Christmas tree for a feather boa.


As someone who has used technology all of my life, I am constantly amazed with the development of new products like this app. I remember when reading a print document by simply scanning and then listening to it on a computer became possible in the late 1990s. This was quite the technological innovation of the time to say the least! Soon we began seeing devices that could identify colors, currency denominations and so much more! They became even more portable with the development of smartphones and tablets.


These innovations are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Beginning in 2013, apps were being developed that could help blind and visually impaired people “see” what was around them. One of the most popular apps was TapTapSee, which described people and objects within a matter of seconds after the user snapped a photo of a person or thing. Later Be My Eyes was released, and this iOS app is still among the most popular for blind and visually impaired individuals. It connects users with sighted volunteers, who will then help by describing whatever it is the person needs help with.


I strongly believe that technology has been a game changer for people with visual impairments, or are otherwise disabled. Most people have the convenience of being able to check their emails and social media pages on the go, but mobile devices and apps have allowed blind and visually impaired individuals to do much more than that. Apps like BlindTool have an enormous potential of redefining access for people without vision. I sure am beyond excited at the possibility of someday being able to “see” what’s around me in a matter of seconds by simply pulling out my cell phone!


BlindTool is a fairly new app, and therefore I don’t necessarily expect it to be accurate 100 percent of the time. I most certainly can’t wait to see the full potential of this app, and hope that its developers will soon make a version for iOS. Better yet, I am anxious to see what future technologies have in store for blind and visually impaired individuals. After all, if technology can now help us read and “see” images, then there’s no limit to what it can do for all of us.


Built-In Accessibility in Mainstream Products: A Benefit for All!

When I first heard in 2009 that Apple’s latest iPhone would be accessible to the blind and visually ipicmpaired, I was very skeptical. I had seen the iPhone’s touch screen, and could not figure out how on earth I could use it without being able to see. A lot has changed since then, and using touch screen devices has become more common among the blind and visually impaired. Best of all, people no longer have to purchase special software or hardware to be able to access the devices. Companies like Google and Apple are working tirelessly to make sure their products can be used by everyone.

Touch screen devices have become accessible to blind and visually impaired users thanks to screen-reading technology. This software speaks out loud the apps and reads emails and text messages. Apple’s Voiceover and Google’s Talkback are among the most popular screen-reading programs designed for mobile devices.

Before 2009, the majority of blind and visually impaired cell phone users had to purchase screen-reading software in addition to their phone. These programs could cost a minimum of $300, and were only compatible with certain devices. Two of the most common programs were Talks and Mobile Speak. Prior to these programs, blind and visually impaired people were not able to read or send text messages independently. Not everyone could afford both the phone and software, and many of us settled with having a phone that had buttons that were easy to tell apart. At least that way we could answer the phone and make calls.

I finally got my iPhone in 2012 after hearing from my blind friends how accessible it was. To say that I was thrilled with the phone’s accessibility is an understatement. For the first time I could browse the internet, send and receive text messages and even know who was calling me thanks to the built-in accessibility! Best of all, I loved the fact that the phone was completely accessible right out of the box. By simply turning Voiceover on I could begin using it – I no longer had to buy additional programs just to be able to use my phone.

More products have become accessible out of the box ever since 2009. In addition to the screen-reading capabilities, people with low vision can make text larger and even change the screen colors for better visibility.

Individuals with physical disabilities are also benefiting from built-in accessibility. Thanks to programs like Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now, they can do things like dictate text messages and even open specific apps without having to physically touch their phone or tablet. While Siri and Google Now were not originally designed for people with disabilities, they have been tremendously helpful to this community. Additional built-in accessibility features also help people who are deaf and those with learning or cognitive disabilities use their mobile devices independently.

Designing devices to be accessible out of the box is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. Just like anyone else, people with disabilities will by products that are usable and that meet their specific needs. I applaud companies like Apple and Google for their continuous efforts to make their products accessible for everyone, and I hope more manufacturers will follow their lead.

This accessibility has opened more opportunities for people with disabilities in many ways. In future blogs I will discuss how these features combined with other apps have allowed disabled individuals to use mobile devices for many purposes. What off the shelf products have you found accessible as a blind or visually impaired person? Do you have additional suggestions for readers? As always, thanks for your comments and feedback!