Braille bills to visual interpreters – how tech assists the blind

On August 12, 1991, BT introduced braille and large print bills. Here are some new ways tech is leading the way in accessibility.

Nearly 30 years ago, BT introduced the first braille telephone bills for blind customers, making it much easier for those with sight disabilities to understand their monthly rates.

At the same time, BT also made it possible to order bills with large print as an aid to partially sighted customers – the Royal National Institute for the Blind helped with both of these steps.

[Read more: App to aid blind on Tube trialled]

Since then, technology has been assisting blind and partially sighted people in a multitude of ways. Voice-activated assistants like Siri and Alexa are helping to broaden accessibility, and a number of specialist projects are helping to ensure the tech revolution doesn’t leave the visually impaired behind.

Thanks to (@CoolBlindTech) for helping us to discover these products.

Seeing AI

This mobile app developed by Microsoft uses the iPhone’s camera, along with image recognition tech and artificial intelligence, to narrate the world around the user. It can recognise saved friends and can describe their emotions based on facial expressions. It’ll also read any text aloud (a room number, for example), scan and read documents, and identify products via barcodes. If you’re paying with cash, it’ll identify the value of the note. New, experimental features include scene description.

It’s available to download in the US right now. Android users and those outside the US can try BlindSight from Neuro X Labs.

Bristol Braille Canute

Developed by UK start-up Bristol Braille, the Canute is the first e-reader that can display a full, refreshable page of text in braille. It offers nine lines and around 360 cells of braille per page, while current options display only one or two lines of text (not even enough for a sentence) and cost many thousands of pounds.

When the Canute eventually goes on sale, it will cost around £600, around the price of a top smartphone. The eventual goal is to reverse the current decline in braille literacy, attributed to the cost and size of devices, and the difficulties associated with obtaining the printed material. For its efforts, the developers scooped AbilityNet’s Tech4Good Accessibility Award.

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Suno wristband

This wristband has been described as a way for visually-impaired folks to navigate their surroundings in the same way bats are able to navigate at night. Sunu emits an ultrasonic wave that can detect objects up to 13-feet away and then send the wearer haptic feedback. It enables wearers to follow others in a line without compromising their own personal space and recognises doorways and thresholds. Everything is synced back to a mobile app via Bluetooth.

Talking Laundry Module

The drive towards accessibility is going beyond smartphones, wearable tech and braille readers. The humble washing machine has also been upgraded to assist the visually impaired. The Talking Laundry Module can be externally fitted to GE washers and dryers. It has text-to-speech capabilities and can announce the chosen cycles and time remaining. Once the cycle has begun, users can push the button to hear the time remaining.

Aira Glasses

Voice-powered digital assistants are all the rage in tech, but sometimes it’s still nice to have human feedback. That’s the concept behind the Aira glasses, which are equipped with a camera. If the blind person requires assistance at the supermarket, or if they encounter an obstacle in the street, or even if they need to read items from a menu, they can summon an agent to assist. The visual interpreter will see a live feed from the camera whenever called upon and will see where the wearer is located on Google Maps in order to offer real-time directions.

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