4 Ways Assistive Technologies Can Better Help the Blind

This article was co-written by Kalai Ramea, PARC Data Scientist, and our friends at the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Palo Alto, who have generously helped PARC test new conversational user interfaces. You can hear more about this project on the debut episode of The PARC Podcast.

Assisting the blind and visually impaired with technology

Technology, at its core, has the power to improve life. And for the 250 million people in the world living with low vision or blindness, technology plays an everyday role in living fuller, more independent lives. While “assistive technologies” have made great strides, from electronic mobility aids to refreshable braille displays, there is much potential for further innovation.

PARC has worked closely with the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a leading Palo Alto-based resource provider for vision loss and rehabilitation, to test conversational user interfaces with real users. During these sessions, many conversations arose around how assistive technologies could be improved. From those discussions, here are four ideas for new or improved assistive technologies for the blind and visually impaired.

1. Better screen readers

Screen readers are applications that try to convey to the blind and visually impaired what people with standard eyesight are able to see, using non-visual means like text to speech, sound icons, or a braille device. Improving the basic functionality of screen readers would include more language options, natural sounding and behaving voices, and better navigating capabilities. Introducing AI reading comprehension, where the user can ask questions about the website content to the screen reader and receive answers, would be a significant leap forward.

2. Wearable devices with echolocation

Many are familiar with the concept of echolocation, a technique which uses sounds to help “see.” Some companies are in the process of developing mobile applications to map surroundings using echolocation. To take it a step further, developing a wearable device, like a Fitbit, that can perform echolocation and alert the blind or visually impaired user of obstructions on the street or in a room could be a huge lifestyle improvement.

3. Reading text aloud anywhere

There are many settings in the world where braille or electronic text isn’t available, for example packages, street signs or buildings. While there are currently some solutions using optical character recognition (OCR), the electronic conversion of images of text into machine-encoded text, there isn’t a solution dedicated specifically to the blind and visually impaired. Having a device or mobile app that can read such text out loud, instantly and in any setting, would be extremely helpful.

4. Public transportation assistance

Blind and visually impaired people often have difficulty knowing which bus or train lines stop at a particular stop or station. While some stations have audio information, it’s not always interactive or easily accessible. A button directly at the station or a mobile app that could give voice assistance on specific public transportation information like bus and train numbers, schedules, unexpected delays, would make transportation much easier.

February is Low Vision Awareness Month. You can find more facts and resources about vision loss including current assistive technology options at the National Eye Institute (NEI).

Learn more about PARC’s latest research on conversational user interfaces in the inaugural episode of The PARC Podcast featuring Kyle Dent, Kalai Ramea, John Maxwell and Jesse Vig.

Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired is a U.S. nonprofit organization enabling blind or visually impaired people to embrace life to the fullest. For more than 75 years, Vista Center has offered a range of comprehensive services to empower clients to embrace life to the fullest through evaluation, counseling, education and training in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Mateo and San Benito counties.

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