Making Movie Watching Accessible to Anyone

During a recent outing to the movies, I requested audio description service at the theater. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, audio description is the narration of what is happening in a movie, TV show or play. It can help those of us without sight keep up with what is going on, especially in movies and shows with little dialogue. I had done my research, and knew that the theater I was visiting offered a special headset, through which I could hear the audio description commentary without interrupting other moviegoers. The staff knew exactly what I was talking about, and handed me the headset. Much to my disappointment, however, I realized that the audio descriptions were not working as soon as I put the headset on.

This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario for blind and visually impaired moviegoers throughout the United States. A new startup company is working to change the experience of people with disabilities. Actiview is a recently launched smartphone app which will provide audio descriptions and closed captions of movies for people who are blind or hearing impaired. Best of all, no extra or special equipment is required. Users simply install the Actiview app on their smartphone, and select audio descriptions or closed captions for the desired movie. The app was recently launched with the debut of Cars 3.

Other developers around the world have been working on similar technologies. Last year, the Disney Movies Anywhere app began providing audio description for some of its movies. Thanks to this app, I was able to fully enjoy Finding Dory at the movie theater last year. For the first time, I could watch a movie without having to worry about whether or not audio description was available at the theater. By using my iPhone and earbuds, I could listen to the audio description. If the Disney Movies Anywhere app is an indication of how Actiview will help those of us with disabilities in the near future, it is sure to become a game changer for moviegoers around the world!

We have seen time and time again how modern technology is providing equal access to people with disabilities. Thanks to apps like Actiview and Disney Movies Anywhere, individuals who are blind will have greater access to the movies. We will no longer have to scope out or be limited to movie theaters which offer audio description. Most importantly, I hope that more movie producers will take the needs of people who are blind or hearing impaired into consideration. By providing audio descriptions and closed captions for movies, everyone will be able to access and enjoy new releases. Going to the movies is an activity enjoyed by many, let’s make it more inclusive and accessible for everyone!

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.

How Will Technology Make Getting Around Easier In The Future?

Loud steps previewI decide to visit the new mall in town, but I’m not sure where everything is since it’s an unfamiliar place. After taking out my smartphone it begins telling me where each store is and how to get there. The concept of way finding technology is rapidly evolving, and it promises to be of great assistance for blind and visually impaired individuals. Several companies are currently developing a method of guiding individuals through indoor facilities by using Bluetooth beacons. These are small transmitters – about the size of a sticker – that send information to smart phones via Bluetooth. By using a specific mobile app, smartphone users will receive the information from the beacons on their devices.

Recently, the Chicago Lighthouse had the opportunity to test Loudsteps, a smartphone app that when combined with Bluetooth beacons can give directions and guide blind individuals to indoor locations. While many GPS devices and apps can help outside, there is no reliable technology device that can assist to travel in unfamiliar places independently.

Watch Sandy demonstrate Loud Steps

The Loudsteps app and accompanying beacons are manufactured by Boni Beacon, a company in Turkey that has been working on developing a navigation system for those who are blind or visually impaired. In addition to the Chicago Lighthouse, Boni is testing the new system at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in London and in several shopping centers in Turkey. The Loudsteps app is currently only available for iOS, but the company also plans to develop a version for Android. Blind iPhone users can navigate through the app’s menus buy using Voiceover, Apple’s screen-reading feature.

After installing the app and turning on the Bluetooth service on the iPhone, the user chooses their location from the menu of places where the system is available. As soon as the app picks up the Bluetooth signal from the nearest beacon, users begin hearing what’s around them and the approximate location. For example, when entering the Chicago Lighthouse lobby, the app will say that the store is on the left, the front desk is in front, and that there are offices on the right.

The app shows a list of all available locations within a facility, and users can choose where they want to go by tapping on the name. For example, if I want to go to the nearest restroom, I will tap on “toilet.” The app then tells me the direction and distance I should walk. Note that Loudsteps uses clockwise directions, and by default users are facing 12 O’clock. So, if I’m told that the nearest restroom is at 9 O’clock, I know I have to turn left and start walking in that direction. In the video below, I demonstrate how Loudsteps guides me to the cafeteria.

Overall, I think that the Loudsteps app and Bluetooth navigation system has a lot of potential for helping blind and visually impaired people be more independent. By using it in conjunction with a cane or dog guide, it can make navigating unfamiliar indoor spaces much easier for those of us who can’t see.

How do you think this or similar types of technology will help you in the future? Do you see other potential uses besides helping in navigation? Please send any questions to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org