There are many uses to which vision impaired people put their mobile phones. One of the most exciting of these is the ability to find their way around independently using GPS navigation. There are a number of apps that can help with this including Blind Square, RNIB Navigator, Google Maps and Apple Maps to name just a few. The subject of which GPS app is best definitely deserves to be discussed in a separate article.
Many visually impaired people do not have enough sight to use the IPhone comfortably for map reading so spoken announcements of current location and what is nearby as well as turn by turn directions can be extremely helpful.
One of the greatest difficulties visually impaired people experience when using a smart phone for navigation is being able to hear what the phone is speaking while still being able to hear sound of things going on around them. Most headphones are not ideal for this since they reduce the sound from outside sources which can make walking somewhat unsafe. There are headphones such as the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium which cost around £90 which conduct sound through the skull rather than covering the ears, but these are much more expensive than the Boom Bit.
The Polk Boom Bit is a very small wearable speaker with a metal spring clip that can attach to clothing such as a shirt collar, a coat or a t-shirt. It connects to your phone by Bluetooth so there are no trailing wires. The Boom Bit measures 7.5 x 3.5 x 2 centimetres and it weighs 36.3 grams. It is controlled using 2 small rubberised buttons which are easy to feel, though some may find it difficult to press both buttons at the same time. This is necessary to turn the speaker on and off.
Despite its small size and weight, the Boom Bit has surprisingly loud sound. It’s not great for music, but it’s fine for speech.
The Polk Boom Bit does have a speaker phone built in. This works okay when taking calls but it’s not really up to the job when it comes to working with Siri or dictating text, so if you need to do this you can easily turn off the speaker.
The Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker costs around £25 on Amazon and it can be found for as little as £15 on eBay.
As a blind person, there are often times when I need to be able to detect sources of light. This may be to see if it is light outside, if an electric light has been left on, or if the power LED on an electronic device is on. In the past, RNIB sold a device about the size of a marker pen which gave out a sound that changed according to the level of light that it was pointing at. Sadly, RNIB no longer stocks this device, but fortunately it is possible to use a smartphone to do this.
Recently everyone in the building I live in got new door phone systems allowing people to call the flat they require from the outer door and be let in. This door phone system has a privacy setting so you can choose not to hear if someone rings your door. When privacy is switched on, there is a LED that glows to indicate that it is on but there is no other way of knowing whether privacy is on or off. The button that turns privacy on and off is like a doorbell so you can’t tell by the position of the switch.
Fortunately, there are a number of apps which turn a smartphone into a light detector. I have used two of them on the iPhone and both these apps are free. Both detected the presence of the privacy LED on my door phone.
Many smartphone apps are now making use of Artificial Intelligence to help recognise products, people, locate and read text or barcodes and describe photos. The app which has recently grabbed a lot of attention from the blind and partially sighted community is called Seeing AI, produced by Microsoft. This app has a lot of functionality which is available in other apps though often at a cost. Seeing AI is free and it works properly on the iPhone SE or the iPhone 6 and above. Sadly, Seeing AI is not currently available on Android.
Seeing AI has various functions, but in my opinion this app is particularly useful for recognising short pieces of text, scanning bar codes and recognising faces.
When you open the app there is a listing of channels which give access to the different parts of the app. The Short Text channel is the default when you first open the app and it reads text live as the camera sees it. This can be useful for reading labels, but I personally find it particularly useful for reading computer screens when there is no speech e.g. during parts of a windows update process.
The Long Document channel is used when reading a document such as a letter or a book. An internet connection is required for this channel to work. You need to take a picture of a document for this and some guidance is offered to help the user find the correct distance away from the text to get the best results.
The Product channel allows you to recognise bar codes and have them read out to you. This is a great way of identifying products providing they are in the bar codes database. This works well and it is easily the best app I’ve come across for finding and reading bar codes.
The fourth channel is the Person channel which lets you recognise faces. For me this is more fun than anything but it does work quite reliably. You can scan your environment for faces and give faces names so they can be recognised in the future.
There is also an experimental Scenery channel. This does not work well at this stage and there are better apps for this. The Scenery channel is designed to tell you what is around you.
In general then, the Seeing AI app is high quality and free. Other apps such as TapTapSee are good for telling you what is in a room and can be useful for recognising products if the barcode is not in the Seeing AI database. Seeing AI should be absolutely fine for most casual document readers. For those with greater needs such as recognising image files, the KNFB Reader app might be useful. This is available on both iPhone and Android phones and it costs around £79.00.
You’ve probably have heard of Google Glasses, but have you heard of the Snapchat Spectacles? If you’re familiar with social media then you’ve probably come across Snapchat which is a popular social media platform (which can only be accessed on smart devices) that allows users to share messages, photos and videos with other users.
Aesthetically, the Snapchat Spectacles look pretty cool, but don’t let its appearance fool you as they are unlike any ordinary pair of sunglasses! You can use these sunglasses to record videos to share on Snapchat. All you have to do is connect them with the Snapchat app via Bluetooth on initial set up. So whenever you record your videos (by pressing the top right-hand button) they will automatically download on to the app when your sunglasses and smart devices are connected via Bluetooth. Then, you can start sharing the videos.
As I own a pair of these glasses (which cost me £130) I’m probably being really bias by saying they’re amazing. Not only do they protect your eyes from sun damage (UV protection), but they can also take away the hassle from having to open the camera app on your smart device and pressing record. This is great when you’re taking part in on-the-go activities like canoeing, riding a rollercoaster or when you’re hot air balloon. However, there have been concerns which have been raised about these glasses in public including invading the privacy of others. There are many places where wearing these glasses would be inappropriate like in public toilets and changing rooms.
Furthermore, if you’re looking for a pair of glasses which record long videos then the Snapchat sunglasses are probably not for you as they only record 10 second videos. However, you can stitch them together to create a longer video. You can also download the videos on to your smart device like a phone or tablet and start sharing them on other social media sites like Instagram.
Let me know what you think of the Snapchat Spectacles– are they’re a good thing, and would you consider buying one? If you have one let me know what your experience is like using them by leaving a comment below.
Photo of a pair of Snapchat Spectacles in its yellow case.