Is AI Coming To The Help Of The Visually Impaired More And More?

These past few weeks have been very positive for assistive technology breakthroughs – of real-world examples of major brands showing they are finally taking accessibility seriously.

For example, the Danish maker of world’s favourite construction toy, The LEGO Group, was able to announce that it finally will try to offer both audio and Braille instructions for customers – who number both adults and children, of course – with visual impairment.

That sounds like I’m carping, but actually this is quite the achievement. After all, the instructions that come with each Lego ‘set’ are very visual, with the booklet that comes with each Lego set consisting of nice, step-by-step diagrams.

This can be a real blocker to fun for people with visual impairment, but, to their immense credit, the family-owned company has just released a word document that can be printed in Braille plus audio instructions for a screen reader and audio instructions for a mobile device.

Starting as a pilot for four initial ‘sets,’ the company says more will be added to this list soon. What’s really interesting, too, is that there’s some AI (Artificial Intelligence) powering all this; this all comes down to a third party, a guy called Matthew Shifrin of, who originally created downloadable electronic instructions for blind people so they could enjoy LEGO as much as the rest of us. He then developed the idea with the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which developed software to translate LXFML data (LEGO Exchange Format Mel Script) from the usual visual digital building instructions to text based descriptions for Braille and voice commanded instructions. Speech synthesis company CereProc then provided the Software Development Kit and the voice that reads the instructions.

Check out a nice YouTube video here from US TV News to see all this in action – I find it genuinely inspiring.

Introducing PocketVision

Just as positive, in a slightly different way, is how Chinese smartphone manufacturer Honor (a sub-brand of Huawei) has launched a free app to help people read documents, menus and other hard to read texts via their on-device camera.

Intriguingly, AI is again at the heart of this work, as the app – ‘PocketVision’ – uses some of that amazing stuff to do the cool stuff it does. Launched in association with UKAAF main corporate partner the RNIB and available on the new company’s ’Honor 20 Pro’ and ‘Honor 20’ phones, again, this is very encouraging stuff, done with impeccable motives from the commercial company behind it. As the company’s President, George Zhao, states, “We hope to create an enhanced reading experience for people all around the world, enabling a greater sense of independence and giving people with low vision the confidence to unlock their potential and pursue their passions.”  Check out a couple of nice articles on PocketVision here and here

The simplest jobs that sighted people might take for granted can often be the hardest for those living with sight loss

But I’ve definitely saved the best ’til last, as surely one of the standout pieces of accessibility work for the visually impaired we’ve seen all year has to be what Amazon’s quietly cooked up for the community.

That’s in the form of an ad I am sure you’ll have seen on your TV – the new Alexa service that helps a user, we eventually realise has a visual impairment, start her day. (If you haven’t, check it out at once over at YouTube!)

At just 30 seconds, the little movie shows how a voice assistant can help people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted, as it helps the ‘morning ritual’ of a lady waking up, making herself coffee and preparing to head outside.

This was again developed with support from the RNIB, and in this nice marketing press article you can get a good overview – and the piece also quotes the organisation’s senior technology and innovation relationships manager, Robin Spinks, as pointing out how, “The simplest jobs that sighted people might take for granted can often be the hardest for those living with sight loss.

“Having a device that can give you information via voice simplifies tasks and opens a world of accessibility.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself. So, great accessible tech news recently for the visually impaired. I have my metaphorical eyes on you, now, November… no pressure!

The author is founder of Sarum PR and board member of UKAAF

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