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There are millions of people who are blind or visually impaired in the world. In this increasingly digital age, accessibility should be an issue more thoroughly addressed by technology.

Several tech companies haven't neglected the struggles the visually impaired community faces while doing what otherwise is considered a simple task. Shopping, for example, despite stores being compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is still a struggle.

The ADA's rules for businesses are tailored more to wheelchair accessibility. Electric shopping carts must be working, bags should be within reach, as little aisle obstruction as possible, and other stipulations.

For the blind and visually impaired, mobility is a factor, but lighting, color, labels, merchandise layout, and interactions with sales staff are also imperative.

Artificial Intelligence with Remote Assistance (Aira)

Aira (iOS, Android) is a San Diego startup that launched an app by the same name to help blind and low vision individuals. The app uses augmented reality to connect its users with a trained professional who can provide remote assistance. The company has teamed up with retail stores and businesses to integrate the technology.

The app, called the "OnStar for the blind," links its users to an operator who can then access their smartphone camera to view their surroundings. When the user is at a store, for example, the operator can help them move around the store, complete their shopping, and find the quickest checkout line.

Last month, the supermarket chain Wegmans became the first Aira-enabled store in the US. The company has branched out with providers like AT&T and Lyft integrating the technology.

Aira can help users sort mail, navigate an airport terminal, get around a college campus, and more.

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SEE: HeadGaze app lets users with disabilities navigate with simple head movements

Be My Eyes app

The Denmark startup, Be My Eyes (iOS, Android), launched their app in 2015. The app allows video calls with sighted volunteers to help visually impaired or blind users to complete tasks and move through their surroundings.

The volunteers are available for a video call whenever the user needs assistance. The live call can help its users with checking expiration dates on food, where to point their camera, distinguishing colors, reading instructions, and more.

Be My Eyes has more than one million volunteers working with more than 90,000 users. The services are offered in more than 150 countries and can translate almost 200 languages.

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Seeing AI

Microsoft created an app called Seeing AI (iOS) that narrates the user's world. The app deciphers and reads text captured by the user's smartphone camera. Seeing AI can read product barcodes, product names, instructions, and currency.

Additionally, the app can help distinguish colors and the difference between objects.

The app can recognize and describe friends and people around the user, going to far as registering emotion. Seeing AI is working on an experimental feature to describe a scene to its user, like what the park looks like. The app also generates an audible tone to correspond with the brightness of the surroundings.

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KNFB Reader

The Ray Kurzweil and National Federation of the Blind released the KNFB Reader app (iOS, Android, Windows) as a handheld electronic reading device. The app turns printed text into speech that's read-aloud or intro Braille, connectable with a Braille display.

The app doesn't require WiFi and also is helpful for dyslexic users.

The KNFB Reader app uses a patented image-processing technology for the most accurate photos.

The Field of View feature makes sure everything the user needs read is in the frame, Tilt Guidance makes the smartphone vibrate when the screen lines up with the desired text, and Advanced Speech Tech enables high quality voices to respond in multiple languages.

The app has minimal screens and many shortcut keys for optimal use. Users can scan multiple book, manual or other long form material pages with KNFB's Multi-Page Mode. Stand Mode takes pictures as long as the user keeps turning pages.

Options for highlighting and multicolumn scanning are also available.

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(Credit: Screenshot by Download.com)


Accessibility of pricing

Be My Eyes and Seeing AI are free for download and use. Aira and the KNFB Reader have a fairly steep price tag.

Monthly subscription plans for Aira range from $89 to $329, operating similarly to a cell phone plan with minutes. The KNFB Reader costs $100 on all platforms.

A lot of work and expensive technology goes into making these apps that help the visually impaired have more independence and control. The price of the apps may limit how many can take advantage them. As a society our goal should be that no one should be denied a regular day because they can't afford needed tools.

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Takeaways

  1. Apps like Aira, Be My Eyes, Seeing AI, and the KNFB Reader help the blind and visually impaired complete everyday tasks and navigate the world around them.
  2. While Be My Eyes and Seeing AI are free, Aira and KNFB Reader aren't cheap to use. Charging a lot of money for a device that helps disabled people undermines the developer's message of accessibility.

Also see

Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.