Tech that opens eyes: How apps help connect the blind and seeing worlds

Single-purpose, assistive devices have given way to more accessible – and affordable – apps. Perhaps just as valuable is the glimpse into the capable lives of people with limited vision that apps like BlindWays offer.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

When asked how technology might improve the lives of people with vision impairments, Joann Becker presented a deceptively simple challenge.

“Well,” the tech specialist recalls saying, “I’d like to be able to find my bus stop.”

Navigating Boston’s transit system can be challenging for any commuter. But for blind riders, like Ms. Becker, each bus stop and train platform presents a unique challenge.

GPS technology is only accurate to within 30 feet or so – not a problem for sighted commuters, but that “last 30 feet of frustration” could mean missing the bus entirely for those who are blind or have low vision.

Funded by a $750,000 Google Grant, Becker and her colleagues at Perkins Solutions, the technology arm of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., proposed BlindWays, a mobile app that provides visually impaired commuters with clues and landmarks for each stop, crowd-sourced from sighted users.

BlindWays is just one of many recent app store entries marketed toward the visually impaired. The tech industry has long offered solutions to help people with disabilities maintain their independence. But with the rise of smartphones, clunky and expensive devices designed for just one purpose have given way to more accessible – and affordable – apps.

What’s more, the near ubiquity of smartphones has made it easy for sighted users to lend a hand, making sure that apps like BlindWays stay up to date, while taking a few moments out of their day to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Since the app’s launch, volunteers have submitted some 6,000 clues for Greater Boston’s 8,000 bus stops. 

Another app, Be My Eyes, which went live in 2015, establishes a direct video connection between visually impaired users and sighted volunteers. The premise is simple: Many people who are blind don’t need any actual assistance in completing their daily tasks, but merely need a little help.

A sighted volunteer might be asked to help identify which of two cans contains tomatoes. In this case, the visually impaired user can cook a meal just fine on her own – all she needs is a quick confirmation that she has the correct can. The model appears to be working; more than 540,000 volunteers and nearly 40,000 people with low vision are registered on the app.

“An elderly woman can now help a visually impaired technician set up his computer,” says founder Hans Wiberg, who has very low vision. “She doesn’t need to know a thing about computers. She only needs to read what pops up on the screen. He can do the rest.”

Early assistive technology centered on dedicated devices, which, because of the niche market, sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But the smartphone, multipurpose and near-ubiquitous, has completely changed the economy of scale.

“There are larger market forces driving high-powered computation, high-quality engineering, and high-quality battery management in the smartphone market than there would be in a specialty product,” says Aaron Steinfeld, a research professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Cost matters when it comes to assistive technology. Only about 40 percent of adults with significant vision loss were employed in 2014, according to a report by the National Federation of the Blind, and more than 30 percent lived below the poverty line.

Perhaps just as valuable is the glimpse into the lives of people with limited vision that apps like BlindWays and Be My Eyes offer.

“The reality is, most sighted people don’t know somebody [who is] blind,” Becker says. “They think the solutions that a blind person needs are far more expansive and expensive than, it turns out, they need to be. I think these apps are enabling sighted people to see that blind people just need some simple clues to help them do any number of things in their lives.”

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