From braille to Be My Eyes – there’s a rev­o­lu­tion hap­pen­ing in tech for the blind

Tehran Times - - TECHNOLOGY - By Alex Lee

“Con­nected to other part,” my iPhone says to me as I stand some­where in Lon­don’s Soho, try­ing to de­ci­pher the let­ter on the top of a bus stop.

“Hello?” says an Amer­i­can woman, re­mind­ing me of Scar­lett Jo­hans­son’s dis­em­bod­ied ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent char­ac­ter from the sci-fi film Her.

“Hey, er … can you give me a hand by read­ing the let­ter on the bus stop?” I ask.

“Sure … can you move your phone a bit more up, and to the left … Ya! It says … F.”

Re­sult. I thank her, end the ses­sion, pull up Ci­tymap­per and nav­i­gate my way onto the 453 go­ing to New Cross.

I have a lit­tle bit of vi­sion, but only enough to see mo­tion and move­ment.

I am us­ing an app called Be My Eyes, an app that con­nects blind and vis­ually im­paired peo­ple to sighted vol­un­teers via a re­mote video con­nec­tion. Through the phone’s cam­era, the blind per­son is able to show the sighted in­di­vid­ual what they are look­ing at in the real world, al­low­ing the vol­un­teer to as­sist them with any of their vi­sion-re­lated prob­lems.

I be­gan to lose my sight in the sum­mer of 2013 to a rare ge­netic mi­to­chon­drial dis­ease called Le­ber’s hered­i­tary op­tic neu­ropa­thy and was soon reg­is­tered blind. I con­se­quently found my­self re­ly­ing on an as­sort­ment of as­sis­tive tech­nolo­gies to do the sim­plest of tasks.

Be My Eyes has just over 35,000 vis­ually-im­paired users reg­is­tered for the app and over half a mil­lion vol­un­teers. When­ever a vis­ually im­paired user re­quests as­sis­tance a sighted vol­un­teer re­ceives a no­ti­fi­ca­tion and a video con­nec­tion is es­tab­lished.

Its ben­e­fits are ob­vi­ous. Jose Ranola, a 55-year-old from the Philip­pines who works in con­struc­tion and has re­tini­tis pig­men­tosa, said: “I use it to help me iden­tify medicine and read printed ma­te­ri­als and also to de­scribe places and ob­jects.” He adds: “All my ex­pe­ri­ences were good. The vol­un­teers were very help­ful.”

James Frank, a 49-year-old coun­sel­lor in Min­nesota, US, who has se­verely dam­aged op­tic nerves, is also a fan. “The re­sponse has been fa­vor­able and the vol­un­teers are al­ways po­lite,” he says. “The long­est I have waited is maybe a minute.”

Brenda Smith, 51, who lives in Bris­bane, Aus­tralia, has the same con­di­tion as I do. She says she uses Be My Eyes for dayto-day tasks like read­ing in­struc­tions on food and telling apart the white bread her son eats from the brown bread she does. She says she also used it re­cently to guide her to which switch had thrown in the elec­tric­ity box.

In the UK there are over 2 mil­lion who have some form of sight loss and an es­ti­mated 285 mil­lion peo­ple reg­is­tered blind or vis­ually im­paired world­wide. Tech­nol­ogy has long been play­ing a role in im­prov­ing their lives. In the mid1970s Ray Kurzweil, a pi­o­neer in op­ti­cal char­ac­ter recog­ni­tion (OCR) – soft­ware that can rec­og­nize printed text – founded Kurzweil Com­puter Prod­ucts and pro­grammed omni-font, the first OCR pro­gram with the abil­ity to rec­og­nize any kind of print style. He went on to make the Kurzweil Read­ing Ma­chine, the first ever print-to-speech read­ing ma­chine for the use of the blind.

Now, there’s a new boom­ing age in the field of ac­ces­si­bil­ity, driven in part by smart­phones and high-speed con­nec­tiv­ity. Screen read­ers have de­vel­oped to such an ex­tent that braille is no longer taught.

All the time, com­pa­nies are find­ing new ways to im­prove ac­ces­si­bil­ity and Be My Eyes isn’t the only as­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy com­pany tak­ing ad­van­tage of the real time hu­man el­e­ment, build­ing tech­nol­ogy that is based on the cre­ation of di­a­logue with its users.

In May, startup Aira, the first prod­uct out of AT&T’s Foundry for Con­nected Health raised $12m in fund­ing. Aira’s plat­form takes ad­van­tage of pre-ex­ist­ing wearable smart glasses, like Google Glass, and uses the mounted cam­era.

Ear­lier this year, Aira helped Erich Manser, who has re­tini­tis pig­men­tosa, run the Boston marathon. Through the glasses, Aira’s agent, Jes­sica, was able to give him all the in­for­ma­tion that he needed re­gard­ing his sur­round­ings. The two had been work­ing to­gether since Jes­sica first be­came an Aira agent the pre­vi­ous sum­mer. By de­vel­op­ing code words and short com­mands, Jes­sica, with the as­sis­tance of a sighted guide, was able to di­rect Erich past any ob­sta­cles, onto spe­cific routes and onto the fin­ish line to pass it safely. This was Erich Manser’s eighth Boston marathon, but his first with the as­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy.

It’s not just in link­ing sighted peo­ple with vis­ually im­paired users that tech­nol­ogy is able to help. The Sunu band, par­tially funded through Indiegogo, is try­ing to help im­prove peo­ple’s abil­ity to per­ceive their sur­round­ings. Based in Boston and Mex­ico, Sunu is a tech­nol­ogy start-up cre­at­ing a bracelet that uses ul­tra­sonic sonar tech­nol­ogy to de­tect the user’s sur­round­ings and send hap­tic feed­back when­ever an ob­sta­cle comes into prox­im­ity. The ul­tra­sonic waves emit­ted from the band’s trans­ducer bounce off ob­sta­cles and are trans­lated into vi­bra­tions that get in­creas­ingly more fre­quent the closer the user gets to the ob­sta­cle.

The next gen­er­a­tion of tech ad­vance­ments can go even fur­ther to help blind peo­ple. Au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, if built with the kind of in­tu­itive AI voice-en­abled as­sis­tive so­lu­tions like Ama­zon’s Alexa or Ap­ple’s Siri that are al­ready help­ing in the home, will give blind peo­ple in­creased in­de­pen­dence. It is just a mat­ter of mak­ing th­ese so­lu­tions in­te­gral to de­sign when de­vel­op­ing the ve­hi­cles.

It’s not just for the blind. Au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles will have the ca­pa­bil­ity to rev­o­lu­tion­ize ac­cess and lib­er­ate peo­ple who have lim­ited mo­bil­ity, while as­sis­tive tech­nolo­gies are be­ing de­vel­oped for all kinds of other im­pair­ments. From the stair-climb­ing Scewo wheel­chair, to grip-ad­just­ing bionic arms, tech­nol­ogy is of­fer­ing the big­gest leaps for­ward in ac­ces­si­bil­ity for years and has the abil­ity to sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove the lives of so many.

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