Technology

Living In The Future Part 2: A Couple Cool New Apps

Introduction

My personal blog is the most popular independent publication in the world of blindness and technology. It is read by the access technology elite as well as many enthusiastic blind computer users. Unfortunately, my blog, to be relevant to its readership, is loaded with jargon, obscure abbreviations, references to unstated historical contexts and, in general, assumes a high level of prior knowledge of its readers. When I got the opportunity to join Skeptability last year, one of my goals was to write about technology and print disabilities in a friendlier manner so as to reach more people who might enjoy using such but haven’t the skills, desire, time or aptitude to learn everything that an access technology insider like me would do as part of our standard job related tasks.

Last year, I wrote a piece here called Living In The Future Part 1: Apps For Reading Books that discussed a variety of apps a blind person can use to access reading materials. I hope blind people who read that piece might have found something useful for themselves in it and I hope that others may have learned about a few things they could recommend to a person with vision impairment in their life who, unlike tech junkies like me, may not spend so many of their waking hours thinking about this stuff.

In this article, I add two more apps to those about which I wrote about here last year. If you’re a regular reader of my personal blog, you can stop here as, while I haven’t written specifically about these apps there, you certainly already know about them.

KNFB Reader

The National Federation Of The Blind (NFB) is the largest advocacy organization representing people with vision impairment. I’m not a member nor much of a fan of NFB but I definitely agree that, sometimes, it gets something very right. KNFB Reader, an app funded by NFB, is one such example.

What Is KNFB Reader?

Blind people often encounter situations where they need to get textual information from a source that is fundamentally inaccessible. This could be their gas bill, it might be a page in a book, it could be the menu at their favorite restaurant but there are times we need to read something printed. To this end, many of us employ OCR (optical character recognition) software. In brief, we launch an OCR app, we take a picture of the printed text and our device, using synthesized speech, reads the information aloud to the user. Since getting my first iPhone (a 3GS a week after it was released to the public), I purchased and used a number of different OCR packages with varying levels of success.

Enter KNFB Reader. Suddenly, OCR for blind users of iOS took a giant leap forward. I haven’t done any detailed tests comparing KNFB Reader to other OCR apps on iOS but, based purely in my own use cases and that of my friends, I will state without exception that it is the best mobile OCR package ever. I’ve used KNFB Reader in some difficult situations for OCR, I’ve read the overhead menu at a fast food restaurant with it, I’ve read leaflets dropped on my front porch, I’ve read credits on a movie from our television screen. If you or a friend needs a mobile OCR solution, you cannot beat KNFB Reader.

THe KNFB Reader Price Tag

As iOS apps go, KNFB Reader is expensive coming in at $99 while Abby TextGrabber costs a mere five bucks. KNFB Reader, however, produces profoundly better results. I tend to rail about high prices charged for technology designed specifically for blind people but, in this case, KNFB Reader is worth every penny of the hundred dollars it costs.

Be My Eyes

The single biggest media sensation in the world of blindness and technology this year has surrounded another iOS app called Be My Eyes (BME). It was developed in a manner different from more traditional access technology products and is available at no cost to anyone with an Apple mobile device.

BME is a video chat program with one extra feature, it connects blind people who need sighted assistance with a volunteer who can help them. Be My Eyes became publicly available in January of this year and, to date, has nearly 18,000 blind people and nearly 200,000 sighted people registered for the service.

What Does BME Do?

Be My Eyes has a super simple interface. When a blind user needs sighted assistance, they hit a button that says, “Connect To First Available Helper.” They then listen to a little tune play until one of the sighted volunteers picks up. Then, the blind person, while speaking to the volunteer points the phone camera at the object with which they need help, asks questions and the volunteer does their best to provide answers. I recently purchased a bit of audio gear that had lots of ports and jacks on it, I couldn’t figure out which was input and which was for output so I launched BME and with the help of a nice woman had it all figured out in a matter of minutes.

If you have a vision impairment or know someone who does, BME is a terrific tool to have in one’s box and I recommend it highly.

BME And The Social Model

There are a number of ways of looking at disability theory. The medical model basically says that we should put our resources into finding a cure and effectively ignores that we need to live with disability in the time before a medical solution is found. Two others are the minority model, in which we view ourselves as a distinct minority and the social model, in which we view ourselves as members of society in more general terms. For a long time, I’ve fallen mostly into the minority model but, over the past few years, doing a lot of reading on and analysis of the social model is pulling my philosophical views on the subject more into the social model than any other.

Unlike KNFB Reader, Be My Eyes is not a paragon of advanced technology. There’s nothing that BME does that hadn’t already been done except for using it for this specific purpose. BME is an innovation in that it found a way to put people who sometimes need help directly in touch with people who are willing to provide such assistance. I strongly support independence for people with disabilities but I also believe that everyone in society, with a disability or not, needs to ask for help sometimes.

The BME Price Tag

Be My Eyes comes at no cost to all users, blind or sighted volunteers. You can get it from the AppStore, the sign up process is simple and you can start enjoying it almost immediately.

Conclusions

There’s a lot of cool things happening in the world of blindness and technology. These are two examples and, moving forward, I’ll try to bring more to Skeptability readers as time permits.

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gonzblinko

gonzblinko

My real name is Chris Hofstader. I'm an accessible technology professional, a crackpot, stonerand all around decent guy.

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