Tech to help with vision loss
New software, apps and technology are helping to make computing more accessible to blind and partially sighted people. Jonathan Parkyn reveals the latest breakthroughs
Don’t let impaired vision keep you in the dark. We shed light on the software and devices that can help
New features in Windows 10
Microsoft provides Windows tools for users who are blind or have partial vision (click Start menu, Settings, ‘Ease of Access’ in Windows 10). These were improved in the Fall Creators Update (FCU), released last October.
The Narrator tool, for example, has been updated with a new ‘input learning mode’ (press Caps Lock+1 to turn it on and off). This helps you learn what Narrator’s keyboard commands are without actually triggering them. In addition, Narrator can now automatically generate image descriptions, even when an image has no embedded text (press Caps Lock+shift+d).
Narrator’s Scan mode – which lets you navigate using simple keyboard shortcuts – is now enabled by default when you browse the web using Microsoft Edge (with Narrator switched on). Cleverly, it switches itself off when you click in a box you need to enter text into (such as a password field). Microsoft provides a useful list of all the shortcuts you can use in Scan mode at www.snipca.com/27152.
The Magnifier tool now works in tandem with Narrator, automatically following the text that is being read aloud. Furthermore, the FCU added a Colour filters tool to make on-screen elements clearer to see for people with colour blindness and light sensitivity. Enable this feature and select your filter via Start menu, Settings, ‘Ease of Access’, then ‘Colour & high contrast’ (see screenshot below left).
Further accessibility improvements are due in Windows 10’s next major feature update (due in the next few weeks), including a reorganised ‘Ease of Access centre’ and a colour wheel for choosing the most suitable colour filter.
New features for phones and tablets
Modern phones and tablets come with several features for users with poor vision. On Apple IOS devices, look under Vision in Settings, General, Accessibility. In Android, look under Settings, Accessibility. Both operating systems include screen readers, magnifiers and tools for improving the visibility of on-screen text and colours.
The latest version of Android (8.0, Oreo) makes it even easier to enable your most-used accessibility tools – including Magnifier and ‘Select to Speak’ – by letting you add a permanent shortcut (an icon of a person with outstretched arms – see screenshot below left) in the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. With ‘Select to Speak’, the shortcut is added by default when you switch on the tool. With Magnification, select the ‘Magnify with button’ option.
Apple’s IOS 11 introduces a range of new and enhanced features for iphone and ipad users, including a Smart Invert option, which selectively inverts the colours in areas where needed, rather than across the entire screen. In your device’s Accessibility settings, tap Display Accommodations, Invert Colours, then Smart Invert.
Apple has also improved the way its screen reader (Voiceover) detects text embedded in images, automatically reading it when Voiceover is switched on. If there’s no embedded text, IOS will scan the image and provide you with a description. Select an image, then tap it with three fingers to hear the description.
New apps for blind and partially sighted users
Microsoft has just released a new phone app called Soundscape that’s designed to help partially sighted users navigate their surroundings. It requires headphones and works by creating a 3D audio environment that plays sounds to help you orientate.
Set a ‘Beacon’ (a landmark, point of interest or other destination) and the app will use your device’s location tool to discover the Beacon’s position in the real world, converting it into clicks and other noises. These help you to build a mental image of the world around you and point you in the right direction. Microsoft stresses that the app should be used with traditional means of navigation, not on its own. Soundscape is free for IOS devices ( www.snipca.com/27153), and we think an Android version won’t be far behind.
Microsoft also recently announced that it’s backing another brilliant app for blind and visually impaired users called Be My Eyes ( www.snipca.com/27154). This app, available for IOS ( www.snipca. com/27155) and Android ( www.snipca. com/27156), provides visual assistance via your phone or tablet. It works a little like a video-chat app, putting people with vision loss in contact with sighted volunteers.
Your device’s camera shows the sighted helper what you’re looking at, allowing them to provide you with information, such as the expiry date on a carton of milk (see screenshot above). In the latest version of the app (1.1.4) Microsoft offers free technical support – just tap the new ‘Specialized help’ button, then ‘Microsoft’.
New innovative devices
New technologies aimed at assisting people with visual impairments featured predominantly at this year’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES), held in January in Las Vegas. These included the Becdot ( https://bec-dot.com), a toy that uses NFC to help blind and partially sighted children learn to read braille from a young age. It was made by Beth and Jake Lacourse, whose daughter Rebecca was born with Usher Syndrome, a common cause of blindness and deafness. They were inspired after finding existing braille toys too basic, complex or expensive.
Also on show at CES were ‘vision-free’ phones by Israeli company Project Ray ( http://project-ray.com). It makes sturdy devices built around accessibility features, such as vibrations (known as ‘haptic’ feedback) that occur when the user carries out particular actions. Sadly, there’s no sign of a UK release date for these, but Android users can get a taste for Ray’s tech by downloading the Ray
Vision Launcher (free from www.snipca. com/27157), which provides a simplified, high-contrast interface (see screenshot above left) for your device.
Some of the most innovative products at CES were headsets and smart glasses aimed at users with vision loss. The Orcam Myeye 2.0 ( www.orcam.com), for example, is a discrete camera that clips on to a standard pair of glasses (see image below left). It reads text aloud from any surface and recognises faces, products, banknote values and more. The Myeye 1 is already available through the RNIB web store for £2,880 ( www.snipca.com/27158), though there’s currently no UK launch date for the smaller, lighter new model.
Slightly more science-fiction is esight, a company that makes headsets that it claims can “let the legally blind see”. It works using a combination of highresolution cameras, depth sensors, and processing power to capture images of the world around you and enhance them, before streaming them back – in real time – to a pair of specially calibrated OLED screens in front of your eyes. It’s very clever, but esight isn’t cheap (around £7,500). It’s now available in the UK via Associated Optical ( www.associated optical.com), but you’ll need to contact the company on 01628 600410 for more information.
If you’re colour blind, make Windows 10 easier to use by applying a colour filter The latest version of Android adds an icon for access to Magnifier and ‘Select to Speak’
The Be My Eyes app lets you ask a sighted person what’s written on an item Project Ray makes phones with simplified, high-contrast screen designs
The Orcam clips on to a pair of glasses and recognises faces, products and more