A New Smartphone App that Reads to the Blind

An iPhone App is giving increased independence to the blind with the power to take photographs of any text they need to identify, and having the app read that text back to them.

The development of the technology which led to the new app was sparked by a conversation that Ray Kurzweil, a senior Google employee and artificial intelligence scientist, had with a blind person on a plane four decades ago about the lack of optical-recognition technology in the market. The KNFB Reader is the result of work by the National Federation for the Blind in the United States in collaboration with Kurzweil.

The added involvement of Sensotec NV in Belgium led to the technical development of the app from something which started out costing over US$50,000 and being the size of a washing machine when it was first developed. This is the first time that the software will be widely available on mobile. The only previous mobile version was a Nokia app which worked in a similar way at a cost of over US$1000. The app sells for US$99 in the App Store and will be released on Android in the next few months.

Use of the app will result in an increased engagement in ordinary life situations for the blind who will no longer be dependent on others to read things such as letters, restaurant menus, pamphlets and powerpoint presentations; giving them more social independence. The cellphone app can recognise and translate print in several different languages and read text up to 7.6 meters away.

Kurzweil is also exploring using the App on Google Glass, which includes a small computer screen which attaches to standard eyeglass frames and is capable of taking photos and videos as well as playing back audio. The move seems logical as it would make it simple for the visually impaired who are likely already using sunglasses to snap photographs of anything in front of them as the glasses work with the user’s head and have the glasses read back the information to them. It would be even simpler than having to aim a cellphone at o bjects with text that needs to be identified.

The app proves that technology is used to improve the lives of all and this will have significant meaning to those with disabilities whose quality of life will be the most affected.