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.

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