World / Science & Health

New smartphone app gives sight to the blind

Reuters

Jonathan Mosen, who has been blind since birth, spent a recent evening snapping photos of packages in the mail, his son’s school report and labels on bottles in the fridge. In seconds, he was listening to audio of the printed words the camera had captured, courtesy of a new app on his Apple iPhone.

“I couldn’t believe how accurate it was,” said Mosen, an assistive technology consultant from New Zealand.

The newly available app is receiving rave reviews and is being heralded as a life-changer by many people.

Blind people say the KNFB Reader app will enable a new level of engagement in everyday life, from reading menus in restaurants to browsing handouts in the classroom.

The $99 app is the result of a four-decade relationship between the National Federation of the Blind and Ray Kurzweil, a well-known artificial-intelligence scientist and senior Google employee. K-NFB Reading Technology Inc. and Sensotec NV, a Belgian company, led the technical development of the app.

The app will be available on Android in the coming months, Kurzweil said. He may also explore a version of the app for Google Glass.

“Google Glass makes sense because you direct the camera with your head,” Kurzweil said.

Kurzweil, who demonstrated the app on stage at the NFB’s annual convention in June, said it can replace a “sighted adviser.”

Taking advantage of new pattern-recognition and image-processing technology as well as new smartphone hardware, the app reads printed materials out loud. People with refreshable Braille displays can now snap pictures of print documents and display them in Braille, said NFB spokesman Chris Danielsen.

The app has already given some people greater independence. One early adopter, Gordon Luke, tweeted that he was able to use the app to read his polling card for the Scottish referendum.

Kurzweil started working on “reading machines” in the early 1970s after chatting on a plane with a blind person who voiced frustration with the lack of optical-recognition technology on the market.

A few years later, “Kurzweil burst into the National Federation of the Blind’s offices in Washington, D.C., and said he had invented a reading machine,” recalled Jim Gashel, a former NFB employee who currently heads business development at KNFB Reader. “It was phenomenal.”

Kurzweil’s first reading machine was the size of a washing machine and cost $50,000. The technology has continued to improve over the past few decades. The new smartphone app can recognize and translate print between different languages and scan PowerPoint slides up to 25 feet (7.6 meters) away.

It was not available on a mainstream mobile device until now. Previously, it cost more than $1,000 to use the software with a Nokia cell phone and a camera.