Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What technology that helps the blind

Ten years ago, I evaluated a number of technologies that is of use to visually handicapped (VH). It was quite a fruitless search. Ten years later I attended the China Information Accessibility Forum in Beijing and it showed quite a number of improvement. The following is a description of some of the technologies available as gathered from the forum.

I am not a fan of Apple iPhone but I do admire the free VoiceOver accessibility feature available. With it, VH can use the phone almost as easily as others.  There were apps written to help blinds. Ariande can help blind navigate places alone. LookTell Money reader can read money denominations (only US$). Color ID Free can read colors (can only read simple color). VizWiz provides human assistance to help VH. Android has assistive technology also but is a far fetch from VoiceOver.

Another technology by Apple is also of interest. It is the iBeacon technology. This technology allows a BT beacon to beam its proximity and some static information to the user. Obviously, user must use iPhone to do it. (Android have apps that can do it too.) It has a number of applications for VH. If every bus could be equipped with such beacon, it would help VH to detect which bus is the required one.

If the beacon can be fixed on every bus stop then VH will know which one to disembark on the last announced stop. If a building is equipped with Beacon, It will greatly help VH or sighted to know their exact location with a given virtual map of the building. Even those sighted can get lost in a very large shopping mall. Android has yet to catch up on this. Samsung is reportedly following suit but I am yet to see it.

Voice dictation system. Microsoft demonstrated its Cortana system that integrates voice recognition with linkage to app activation - a sort of personal assistance. Although it failed several times to perform during the presentation, it nevertheless a good technology to adapt for the blind. I have not seen Apple Siri at work but it is basically implemented much earlier than Microsoft. Android does not have one but there are quite a number of apps that does the same. How good is it is yet to be ascertained.

Obstacle Avoidance and Detection system. This technology was not that new but has not been very successful. Saw a video on this system. It could be helpful but as far as I know, detecting suspended small/pointed objects is still an issue.

Object location tag. Saw from booths in the forum that allows items to be tagged with a tag that has a buzzer built in. You could call up to 8 devices per calling device. It is nothing new just that the idea is rather interesting. If they could make it into adhesive tag then its use might be wider. I would like to see something like a RFID. It uses passive tags. The reader must be able to pinpoint the tag among other tags.

Face recognition and detection. According to the demonstrator, it helps the blind to be able to talk to others face-to-face by detecting where is the person. It allows pre-recorded face so that it can even announce the person's name. It did recognize me as a 50 plus old anonymous guy.

Small MP3 like equipment that can play music and read documents (without screen) is something of interest. A number of companies were making it. I would be more interested if it can automatically change language according to the mixed language document.

PC screen reader. It has been ages since this technology is available. Nothing much changed. Laptops and PC sales are going down due to increasing mobile handphone use. It is sunset technology.

Some researcher was trying to integrate all the technologies in one app. It might be useful but probably takes decades to do so.

One biggest challenge is to make the equipment affordable. Many of the VH have low or no income. Having such equipments are next to impossible. Don't forget many of the equipment requires internet access. There is a monthly bill to pay. Many equipments also require general public to take part like iBeacon for buildings/bus. The infrastructure cost is huge. Other VH are also illiterate. Coaxing, educating them enough to use such equipments is a long and tedious task.