The invention of the Braille reader in the mid-1850s provided a much needed platform for the visually impaired to read, learn, and communicate. Since then, its popularity has surpassed expectations among the blind community, giving them an adequate playing field to compete with eyesight gifted humans. Only recently, tech companies and start-ups across the world have brought upon novel innovations in assistive technology that has shown tremendous promise. These innovations not only has the capability to reduce dependency on the Braille reader, possibly eliminating them altogether, but could also aid the visually handicapped to perform day to day tasks with ease and without external help.
Screenreaders are the cornerstone of such braille-replacing technology. Usually accompanied with a device that can be mounted near the eye or on wearable glasses, they use a smart camera that can scan handwritten or printed texts and instantaneously convert the information to words spoken in the user’s ear. Working on the simple principle of text-to-audio conversion, screenreaders have shown tremendous promise in assisting the visually impaired. Using this device, they can not only read texts in front of them but can also perform important tasks like online banking and reservations. In addition to such benefits, MyEye 2.0, launched by the Israeli company OrCam, also has the ability to capture barcodes, currency denomination, bus numbers, and colors and transmit that information across 20 different languages to the ear of the visually impaired. Done real-time and offline, MyEye 2.0 protects the privacy of its users and is vastly used across 20 countries worldwide. A Canadian company, e-Sight, has recently launched its vision assistant headset whose digital camera captures live footage and presents it in front of the user’s eye. For users incapable of buying such devices, Microsoft provides relatively similar functionalities through its Seeing AI mobile application – that can be used through any smartphone devices.
Navigating through a city is always a daunting task for the visually challenged. To circumvent this problem, large tech-companies and dedicated start-ups have utilized the fundamentals of GPS technology to implement “turn by turn” navigation. The London based non-profit organization, Wayfindr, is one of the pioneers in such technology. Using a mobile device, Wayfindr helps the visually challenged to navigate densely populated indoor spaces – including underground metro stations, shopping malls and visitor attractions. Tech giants like Microsoft and Google has also paved the path in developing navigation apps that provide independent mobility for the visually impaired. Google’s Lookout and Microsoft’s Soundscape are two of such applications that helps its users in navigating cities using audio cues and labels. Another Microsoft application, HoloLens, guides its users through complex buildings while alerting them of any approaching obstacles in real-time. Companies have also researched in manufacturing smart canes, which uses the principle of echolocation to send out ultrasound signals that alerts its users of any potential obstacle in their path.
These examples showcase the technological innovations that have occurred in order to aid the visually impaired. In addition to distributing these gadgets and apps, it’s imperative that tech support services help the blind come in grips with such assistive technology. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report published in 2010, an estimated 285 million people globally are visually impaired, 14% of them completely blind. Making such assistive technology commercially viable is probably the next big step in helping such a large number of handicapped people around the world.