“Technologies for the Visually Impaired”
Communications of the ACM, December 2020, Vol. 63 No. 12, Pages 15-17
By Logan Kugler
“Smartphone apps make it easier for the blind and visually impaired to navigate other difficult situations, like counting paper money and labeling their surroundings.”
Thanks to recent advances in technology, the blind and visually impaired are now able to lead more independent lives than ever.
The WeWALK Smart Cane is a great example of what is now possible. The WeWALK looks similar to the cane that some blind and visually impaired people have used for decades to avoid obstacles while walking, but it incorporates a few modern twists.
With a standard cane, you can still run into obstacles that are not immediately underfoot, like poles, tree branches, and barriers. The WeWALK, however, detects objects above chest level and audibly alerts you if you’re getting too close, which can save you from a painful fall.
Also, when using a standard cane, you have to hold a smartphone in one hand to listen to directions, making it even more difficult and dangerous to navigate your environment. The WeWALK integrates with a smartphone’s map app to read directions out loud, allowing you to keep one hand free.
Finally, the WeWALK costs less than $500, making it affordable for many of the estimated 10 million visually impaired people in the U.S., and 250 million worldwide.
The WeWALK is just one example of a larger trend. Technology to help the blind and visually impaired has become dramatically more powerful and significantly cheaper in the last 10 years. In the process, it has revolutionized how blind and visually impaired individuals navigate the world.
However, despite the progress, there are still major unresolved problems.
Technologies like sophisticated smartphone apps and artificial intelligence have empowered millions of blind and visually impaired individuals, but many websites are still inaccessible to the visually impaired, making it difficult or impossible to use key online services, tools, and experiences that the sighted may take for granted.
The result is an imbalance in assistive technology progress. On the one hand, it’s never been easier or more affordable to acquire new, powerful accessibility technology; on the other, there are still serious accessibility issues with the technology that powers much of modern life.
A Decade of Progress
Technological progress during the last decade has created major benefits for society as a whole, as well as for the blind and visually impaired in particular.
“Computer vision, fast mobile processors, high-speed wireless Internet, and cloud computing have enabled some truly fascinating innovations for resolving barriers in everyday life,” says Aaron Steinfeld, associate research professor in The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Most of today’s innovations in technology for the blind and visually impaired are delivered via smartphone. These include sophisticated applications that empower the visually impaired to navigate, count money, and obtain assistance with basic tasks. They also include tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to recognize facial expressions and describe the external world in real time.
The sheer ubiquity of smartphones has made them the perfect enabling device for the blind and visually impaired. The percentage of U.S. adults who own smartphones has risen from 35% in 2011 to 81% in 2019, according to Pew Research, and Cisco estimates more than 70% of the global population will have mobile connectivity by 2023.
About the Author:
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL, USA. He has written for over 60 major publications.
Charters, L. Apps now online to aid patients with visual impairment, Ophthalmology Times, Jun. 5, 2020, https://bit.ly/2GPWxTC
Henry, S. Accessibility Fundamentals Overview, World Wide Web Consortium, Feb. 19, 2020, https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals
Mobile Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, Jun. 12, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/
Cisco Annual Internet Report (2018-2023) White Paper, Cisco, Mar. 9, 2020, https://bit.ly/3djrgVH