Smartphone apps guide the blind through the world

With innovative apps, blind or visually impaired people can better connect with and cope in the wider world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 10:25am

Hong Kong is a tricky place to be blind. Learn the route to your favourite restaurant, and it moves. Walking through Wan Chai in rush hour is a dizzying crush. Attempt getting a guide dog and you probably would have a hard time. Hong Kong has just a handful of guide dogs since a ban on them imposed following a road accident in 1975 was relaxed in 2006.

While the city can't change its ways, technology is starting to give back to the visually impaired the skills they lack to navigate our concrete jungle. From recognising products in 7-Eleven to knowing which bus stop to jump off at, today there's an app for that.

Lend An Eye is perhaps the most ambitious of the bunch. Developed in Singapore by digital marketing agency Grey, the app gives the user a remote assistant who lends their eyes at a moment's notice.

The user wears the phone around their neck. When they need help - facing an unfamiliar street or roadworks perhaps - they dial up the app, which reaches a pool of volunteers. The phone's front-facing video camera automatically fires up and the volunteers guide the user to safety.

These new apps are cheap and everyone can get them. It's something very new and totally liberating
Ali Shabaz, Grey creative officer

Ali Shabaz, of Grey, says: "In Asian cities, learning your route from A to B isn't enough. You step outside and there's construction work. This technology is simple and it enables people to get to exactly where they want to go."

While initially developed as a sort of interactive GPS, the app has evolved. "What's phenomenal is the relationships that built up between users and volunteers. They began using the app to get their helper to read letters for them, or find the right bag of low-calorie nuts in 7-Eleven. It was very heartening."

One volunteer, Siew Hwei says the work is easy to fit around her life despite having a full-time job as an accountant. "If someone calls me at work, it's okay, it doesn't take long; it's just like going to the restroom."

And as well as the satisfaction of helping others, it gives Hwei a fresh insight into the disability. "Everything here is concrete and changing. If I were to blindfold myself in all this, at least I'd have the confidence that someone can see what is in front of me."

The app is only available on Android, but Shabaz hopes to get iOS approval for the open source software soon and roll it out further, recruiting more volunteers to support the service.

Philanthropic developers are rolling out new products every month. In Santa Cruz, University of California tech wizards are creating an app that lets visually impaired people take focused, well-framed photos. Rather than using a shoot button, the app is voice controlled, giving the snapper audio cues as to how many people are in the shot and whether they are in focus. To shoot, the user makes a final broad swipe.

Elsewhere, LookTel's money reader recognises currency for blind people, Colour Identifier means mismatched socks are a thing of the past, while oMoby reads out the product information when a bar code is scanned in a shop.

Becky Mok Pui-ki has been visually impaired all her life. But as her retina condition worsens with age, such apps become more crucial to her independence. "Before smartphones, it was so much harder to get information," she says. "Now I can do things on my own without relying on someone being there to help."

Mok cites the Kowloon Motor Bus app, which allows her to input her start and end destination. As she rides, the GPS tracking knows when her stop approaches and alerts her. "Before, I had to ask a stranger for that information," she says. "It's empowering."

Keny Yuen also uses technology to extend his independence and integrate better with society.

The 30-year-old, who lives in the New Territories and was born blind, says Tap Tap See has been the biggest revelation for him. Developed specifically for the blind, the app allows him to take a photo of any object - say, a red apple at the market - and identify it.

It not only helps users shop but also assists in organising the contents of their fridge and making meals. Disasters such as soup on toast rather than beans can be avoided.

Other apps are less practical but no less valuable. Thanks to Apple and Google's voice-over technology, Yuen can now use popular news apps, such as that of Apple Daily, on his bus ride to work. With his earphones in, the text grabber feature simply reads out the day's news.

Similarly, Apple iBooks and Kindle are both fitted with voice technology. Yuen says being able to engage with current affairs and literature makes him feel more engaged with society, and integrated with a world he cannot see.

However, Navy Hui, of the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, warns that the voice-over technology that Apple and others have provided will only work if app developers ensure their content conforms to the web content accessibility guidelines. While many apps and websites in Hong Kong - such as OpenRice - have done this, other are still to catch up.

But catch up they probably will. According to the World Health Organisation, there are 285 million visually impaired people in the world (with 120,000 in Hong Kong). Globally, that's big business.

Israeli entrepreneur Boaz Zilberman, CEO and founder of Project Ray - a new Android phone with an interface for blind people - has called it a "billion dollar" market. "There's no better tool for blind people than the smartphone," he says.

In Hyderabad, Indian company Kriyate Design Solutions this year revealed its Braille-enabled smartphone which uses a grid with sliding pins. The phone will launch next year.

Technology which is so often credited with making the world smaller, is doing the exact opposite for the visually impaired.

Shabaz says: "Previous aids, such as the guide dog, were limiting. They were trained to take a person from A to B, and the cost of training is pretty high. These new apps are cheap and everyone can get them. It's something very new and totally liberating."