smarter apps Technology

Apps to empower the visually-impaired

A user with Envision app reading a sheet of typed notes

A user with Envision app reading a sheet of typed notes  

With infrastructure not changing for the sake of accessibility any time soon or at a fast-enough pace, these apps break barriers to empower the visually-impaired community

The smartphone has been a clairvoyant for those in the dark for a while now — from reading street signs to telling the time and gauging physical surroundings. After all, 90% of the information processed by the human brain is visual

Enter the Envision and Be My Eyes apps which promise all this and more, with a focus on diversification, privacy and inclusivity.

Envision

Making use of Artificial Intelligence, Envision intelligently extracts the information from images and provides an audio output.

Karthik Mahadevan, who co-founded the app through a thesis project, wanted minimal design to be a major component in the user experience (UX).

Karthik Mahadevan and Karthik Kannan, co-founders of the Envision app

Karthik Mahadevan and Karthik Kannan, co-founders of the Envision app   | Photo Credit: Daniel Verkijk

“A few years ago, both Karthik Kannan and I were in Mumbai giving a talk at a blind school, about design in problem-solving. A lot of the students told us they strived to be more independent, whether it was to do homework or to move around the city. Independence meant access to information for everyone, and this struck me, because I’m a designer so I can actually do something to make access easier. So what started out as research is now an entity upon which many rely.”

Empowering the VI community with these technology and design tools became a priority. “That’s when the angle of implementing Artificial Intelligence came in,” recalls Mahadevan. “Kannan was actually deeply researching into AI and that’s when we explored it further.”

A user with the Envision app reading handwriting on a chalkboard

A user with the Envision app reading handwriting on a chalkboard  

First, the duo did a lot of market research through the VI community. They soon reached a point where they could build a prototype, and when they showed it to their testers, they were met with a positive response.

What sets Envision apart from similar apps? “A lot of the assistive technology in the mass market was very outdated or very bulky or very expensive. So by implementing AI, we are letting our users lead relatively normal lives.”

Privacy

However, the everyday person is quite wary of AI, especially in relation to data mining and privacy. Kannan, who is responsible for the front-end of the operation: technology and product implementation, understands this hesitation, explaining, “There were two instances of AI of which we had to be very aware, one being privacy and the other being the hype. AI has been over-hyped, so we had to strike a realistic balance of what could be achieved with Envision.”

Style shot of the Envision app telling the time on a watch

Style shot of the Envision app telling the time on a watch  

“We do not keep any of the images or information users store,” continues Mahadevan, who values his users’ privacy. “60% of the app’s operations is on-device, and the remaining uses the cloud to process images and discard. We ensure the learning and training is done on the device itself, thus anonymising the user’s data.”

Testing the app proved to be a very tactile experience, especially with our smartphones having fewer buttons. As the app is audio-reliant, it seemed to cancel that complication for its users.

Diversity

What of local dialects? Mahadevan and Kannan proudly say this is the app’s USP. Kannan explains, “Considering both of us are from India, we saw the potential for this to be a global app. We have that advantage because Envision can translate Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Tamil and more fairly well. It is extremely helpful that assistive technology like translation already existed out there, so strategically implementing the 60 languages that Envision deals with was seamless — though it took a-year-and-a-half! The research stages of such a venture is what lent Envision such progress; about two years of this was necessary.”

For those curious about Envision, there is a 14-day free trial, followed by a monthly, six-month or annual subscription options for $5, $25 and $40 respectively. There is a lifetime subscription available for $200.

Be My Eyes

In 2012, Hans Jørgen Wiberg from Denmark was exploring how to use a smartphone and extend vision to visually-impaired (VI) people across the world.

In 2015, he launched Be My Eyes, a free mobile application which connects blind and low-vision people with sighted people to help in situations like finding expiry dates or picking favourite earrings using a video call.

Be My Eyes foudner Hans Jørgen with Princess Marie of Denmark

Be My Eyes foudner Hans Jørgen with Princess Marie of Denmark  

At the age of 25, Hans learnt that he has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder which involves breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.

Since then, it has been Hans’ mission to help the VI community. The idea to use a video call didn’t strike him until 2012, when he was volunteering at The Danish Association of the Blind. “That is where I learnt that blind folks often use video calls for help with day-to-day activities,” Hans shares.

A screenshot of Be My Eyes app

A screenshot of Be My Eyes app  

Be My Eyes is available on iOS and Android and has been awarded a plethora of accolades, including Google Play Best Apps of 2017, in the categories Most Innovative, Best Daily Helper and Best Hidden Gem.

The application has a clutter-free interface, supports over 180 languages and has over 20,00,000 users, thus making it the largest online community of visually-impaired people. A new account takes just three clicks to create. As per the description on App Store, 90% of calls are answered within 30 seconds. However, it may take months before a volunteer gets a call. That’s because VI users are about one-tenth the number of volunteers, which is definitely not a bad problem to have.

Localising Be My Eyes
  • 7117 visually-impaired (VI) users and 19926 Volunteers (V)
  • Hindi VI 2088, V 11981
  • Telugu VI 332, V 1904
  • Tamil VI 408, V 2570
  • Kannada VI 292, V 1053
  • Malayalam VI 178, V 1684
  • Gujarati VI 223, V 1746
  • Marathi VI 313, V 1504
  • Bengali VI 284, V 1867
  • Assamese VI 47, V 532

Privacy

Along with nailing the UX, Be My Eyes demonstrates how to take users’ privacy seriously. The app operates solely on-device. It also has a robust reporting system where they review any call that’s been reported and block people due if needed. Hans says, “It’s a very small number. I have learned that people are better than I thought.”

Diversity

Last year in February, Be My Eyes launched Specialised Help with Microsoft, which enables organisations to connect with blind and low-vision customers and provide them with effective customer care support. Microsoft users in Australia, Canada, the UK, Hong Kong, Ireland, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa and the United States can get Be My Eyes Specialised Help assistance in English.

“Today, companies feel a greater obligation to serve VI customers. And with tech giants making their products accessible for VI users, it is much easier to implement,” Hans adds.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 12:15:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/apps-for-the-visually-impaired-community-visualising-independence/article26373094.ece

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