Assistive Tech for the Blind

A woman tests out RightHear, a smartphone app that detects signals from nearby iBeacons and gives users an audio description of what’s in the vicinity and how to get to certain locations.

Technology can help people with disabilities achieve things they might never have thought possible. More than 5,000 attendees gathered at the CSUN (California State University Northridge) Assistive Technology Conference, held 19 to 23 March in San Diego, to learn about gadgets and apps that can help them lead more productive and independent lives. Here are three innovations that stood out.

An audio description of an object might not be enough for a blind person to fully envision it. The new BrainPort V100 system offers an alternative solution: “seeing” with the tongue. A wearable camera captures visual information about an object and uses gentle electrical stimulation to trace an outline of that object on the wearer’s tongue. The system was developed by Wicab, a medical device company.

The camera is embedded in a pair of sunglasses and connected with a wire to a plastic mouthpiece about the size of a memory card. The mouthpiece rests on the wearer’s tongue. The glasses also are connected to a handheld controller that lets the user turn the system on or off and adjust the strength of the vibrations.

Users feel moving patterns on their tongue that they can learn to interpret as the shape, size, location, and motion of objects in their environment, according to the company’s website.

The V100 also helps with object orientation. If the wearer is walking down a sidewalk and another person appears directly in front of her, the system will sense that and send a vibration to the middle of her tongue.

Prospective users need a doctor’s OK and then receive at least 10 hours of training over a three-day period before they can operate the system independently. Wicab says it currently offers training in five U.S. cities including Chicago and San Francisco.

A free smartphone app is helping blind and visually impaired people navigate shopping malls, universities, and hospitals around the world. RightHear, created by Israeli programmers Idan Meir and Gil Elgrably, acts as a virtual directory, with an audio description of what’s in the vicinity and how to get to certain locations in a building. As a user walks through a university administration building, for example, the app might say, “The admissions office is 30 meters ahead on the left.”

RightHear interacts with Apple iBeacons—small Bluetooth transmitters that can be placed on ceilings and walls. The app detects the transmitters, which act as virtual signs, letting the user know where they are and what’s nearby. If users need help, they can use the app to connect with, say, a hotel’s front desk or a university’s visitor center.

Approximately 400 facilities around the world have installed iBeacons to interact with the app, according to an article in The Jerusalem Post.

At the conference, Cisco announced its partnership with the American Council of the Blind (ACB) to update the software on its IP Phone 8800 Series. The Voice Over Internet Protocol telephones are geared toward businesses.

The accessibility update will include text-to-speech functionality that reads aloud information on the phone’s display, Cisco says. As people push buttons to dial a telephone number, adjust the volume, or use other features, the phone will read the information aloud.

Third-party text-to-speech applications can be unreliable and difficult to use, and they require connections to external computers, according to a blog entry on Cisco’s website.

The Cisco update is built into the phones’ operating system. Companies that already own the phones can deploy the update at any time.

CSUN attendees were invited to Cisco’s booth for a demonstration of the software.

“With businesses relying more on telework and virtual office settings, employees who are blind and visually impaired require reliable telecommunication solutions free of access barriers,” Eric Bridges, ACB’s executive director, said in the blog entry, written by Angie Mistretta, a Cisco marketing director.