New technologies helping 'give sight to the blind'


Imagine a world where blind people can read text, see pictures and recognise faces.

That reality might soon be here. As people rely increasingly on digital technology and the internet to connect with one another, smartphone apps are becoming more sophisticated at translating the visual world for blind people.

One of the latest developments is Facebook's Automatic Alternative Text. Before this year, screen readers like iPhone's VoiceOver could audibly translate only the text of Facebook posts. Now it can read pictures too.

Facebook calls Automatic Alternative Text its "artificial intelligence system". Object recognition technology allows users to hear the description of a photo with some context.

The Blind Foundation's Bryan Thomas gives an example: "In Pakuranga, well lit, indoors, picture of baby."

"That to me as a blind person tells me heaps more than I would have ever known."

Mr Bryan says he thinks the next stage could include facial recognition, if people's names are linked to an image of them in their contact details.

He says OrCam is an example of the technology already being here.

New technologies helping 'give sight to the blind'

"They're glasses with a camera built in and if you hold a piece of paper in front of it, it will scan the page and read what the text says into an earpiece."

He says the 'internet of things' -- physical objects which are able to gather and transmit information -- is helping develop smart homes for blind people. He says the Amazon Echo is one of the most promising products.

"It’s a speaker that sits in your lounge connected to your wifi, and you talk to it. It's like Siri on the iPhone, but far superior.

"I can say to the Echo: 'What's the temperature today, what's the recipe for roast chicken?' and it will go look online and come back with an answer.

New technologies helping 'give sight to the blind'

"These are basic things it does, but it has a lot more far-reaching abilities. You could link it into home automation systems, and say 'turn the lights on, up the temperature to 21 degrees'."

Mara Kelland, an Auckland music teacher who is blind, says she loves her iPhone and uses a number of apps to connect with others online.

Her favourite app is TapTapSee, which she says has given sight to the blind. It works in a similar way to Facebook's picture-reading technology. It will take a photo, and audibly describe the image's contents.

She says Facebook's Automatic Alternative Text is primitive, but is excited about the possibilities it holds for the ways she connects with others online.