Parentology recently published a story about eSight, a visual aid that helps restore sight for the legally blind and visually impaired. While there’s no doubt that technology is enabling people with low vision to have full and independent lives, many of the great new tools available leave out a large percentage of the population: those with no sight. Below, we explore AI accessibility apps for the blind.
Parentology spoke with Laurel Hilbert, founder and president of the non-profit A Dignified Home, who’s been blind since birth. He shared how the following apps help him in his daily life, and we looked into details to help you decide if they could be right for you or someone you know.
AI Accessibility Apps for the Blind
How It Works
Aira is an app that derives its name from the two technologies its service is based on: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Remote Assistant (RA). Highly-trained, remotely-located agents are connected to users via a virtual dashboard. When users need help to “see” their surroundings, whether to complete a simple task or to hear a vivid description, they can give an agent camera access either through their smartphone or a pair of company-supplied smart glasses. Agents provide verbal assistance to either grab the correct item off a grocery store shelf, find the correct file on their computer, or get through an airport without in-person assistance, among a variety of possible scenarios. The company’s website says the service can be used by students, job seekers, employed professionals, parents, or anyone living their everyday life.
The service also has rideshare integration to help users request an Uber or Lyft. The agent helps track the vehicle and lets the user know when the driver arrives.
In addition to live agents, Aira also has an Artificial Intelligence agent named Chloe, who is capable of handling basic tasks like reading and is able to learn new skills.
Laurel describes scenarios including crossing complicated intersections, being able to follow a presentation at work and filling out forms as common ways he uses Aira. He’s even been able to visit museums on his own, saying the agents are trained well enough to describe a piece of art in vivid detail.
Aira has four plan options including Guest, Intro, Standard, and Advanced and range from free to $199 per month for smartphone use. Those who want to take advantage of the smartglasses can expect to pay a little more.
The company also offers the Aira Access Network, made up of businesses, retailers, airports, supermarket chains, college campuses, and sports venues that sponsor free access to the service when used in certain locations, or for specific services.
Since agents are able to see users’ exact location and surroundings, parents who are concerned about their children’s privacy might want to explore other options or limit use.
The app is downloadable on the Apple App Store and Google Play. With the standard and advanced plans, users can purchase or rent the Aira Horizon Kit, which includes a pair of Aira Horizon Smart Glasses and the Aira Horizon phone.
Be My Eyes
How It Works
Be My Eyes functions similarly to Aira, but instead of trained company agents, users are connected to sighted volunteers from around the world.
Laurel cites this app as helpful for completing simple, easy tasks like checking expiration dates or reading handwritten text, and says it helps him save money over Aira, which he reserves for more complicated tasks.
Free to download and use.
This app is not as immersed in the user’s surroundings as Aira, but parents of young children may still want to monitor interactions or set limitations on acceptable questions and topics. And because volunteers are not trained, the company cannot always guarantee quality assistance.
Be My Eyes is available on the Apple Store and Google Play.
How It Works
This app is a late successor of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which was developed in the late 1970s and consisted of a scanner and mini computer that read print documents out loud using a computerized speech synthesizer.
Today’s version is much smaller and consists of three steps. First, the user takes a photo of any text, including electronic, printed and hand written, using a smart device. Then the app reads the text out loud or turns it into Braille. Finally, the user can save or share the documents.
While he’s used to software that reads electronic text, Laurel appreciates the KNFB reader for the range of materials it allows him to access. This app could prove useful for children and adults who wish to read books and other literature not available electronically.
The app costs $99. Users can also purchase licenses for up to four different devices.
While it fully serves the purposes of a reading and text recognition software, this app doesn’t offer any other helpful services.
The KNFB Reader works across iOS, Android and Windows 10 devices.
How It Works
Powered by the CloudSight Image Recognition API, TapTapSee is fully AI-based. The app uses a device’s camera and VoiceOver function to take a picture or video of an object and identifies it out loud to the user.
Laurel enjoys dressing well and says he has a particular taste in clothing. TapTapSee helps him plan his outfit for the day. He also uses it to identify bills when working with physical currency, and appreciates that the app is detailed enough to read out people’s emotions based on whether they are smiling, frowning, etc.
Free to download and use.
While highly reliable, the app is not 100% accurate. It will only recognize objects within the camera’s scope, in focus, and with good lighting. Laurel admits that the app once misread gender, identifying his brother as female.
Download TapTapSee on the Apple App Store and Google Play.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are an estimated 36 million people worldwide living without sight. These apps, among others, allow for a new level of freedom and independence not enjoyed by previous generations.
“For a blind person, dependency on others can make us feel less confident,” Laurel shares. “With more technology like this coming into place, it increases that level of confidence. It is no longer a disability to be blind.”
“I personally like to call it diversability” he adds. “I have the ability to do all the things a sighted person can do, just in an alternative way.”