Seeing eye phone: Giving independence to the blind

From CNET Magazine: Apple's iPhone software is helping people with limited or no sight navigate around town and across the Internet.

Luis Perez carefully frames his photo to get the best shot for Instagram.

Gripping his white cane in one hand and his iPhone in the other, Perez squints at the screen and points the display toward the sunset. His iPhone speaks: "One face. Small face. Face near top left edge."

Perez snaps several photos and then puts his iPhone back in his pocket, with plans to examine the images later.

Taking sunset pictures with an iPhone is nothing remarkable -- until you consider that Perez, a 44-year-old who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, is legally blind. Not being able to clearly see the photos he's taking doesn't slow him down. By using technology built into the iPhone, along with apps from the App Store, Perez has developed quite a photography habit.

"My [remaining] time with vision is limited," says Perez, who began losing his sight about 15 years ago from retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease. He now sees only a small circle of what's directly in front of him, and that will deteriorate over the next few years. "I have to enjoy it as much as I can, and photography is part of that."

In the past, visually impaired people had to shell out thousands of dollars for technology that magnified their computer screens, spoke navigation directions, identified their money and recognized the color of their clothes. Today, users only need smartphones and a handful of apps and accessories to help them get through their physical and online worlds. Most often, the mobile device of choice is the Apple iPhone.

Scott Blanks uses a wireless braille display that works with Apple's VoiceOver assistive technology.

James Martin/CNET

One big reason for that preference? VoiceOver, the screen-reading technology that's been part of the iOS mobile operating system since 2009 with the iPhone 3GS.

VoiceOver first turns off the iPhone's single-tap function on the display. After that, users can move their fingers across the screen to hear what's on the display. That could be anything from the names of the apps themselves to words in an email, a text message or a social media post. When users turn on the "Speak Hints" function, VoiceOver will say what an app is and then give instructions for using it. Users can even adjust the voice's speaking rate and pitch.

While many companies "are doing a lot of good things, Apple is really far and away [the best] in terms of accessibility," says Scott Blanks, senior director of programs at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco. Blanks has been blind since birth.

Lay of the land

By itself, VoiceOver makes it easier for people with limited sight to use their iPhones. But the technology really comes into its own when mobile apps hook into its features. BlindSquare, which talks to users as they walk along crowded city streets and inside busy shopping malls, is a great example.

In addition to VoiceOver, the mobile app taps into the iPhone's built-in GPS, FourSquare -- which knows local landmarks and surrounding areas -- and a crowdsourced map of the world. That combination allows BlindSquare to speak names of landmarks, such as cafes, shops and libraries, as the user walks by. Shaking the iPhone prompts BlindSquare to say the current address and nearest intersection. It will even, for example, tell the user that the entry to her destination has "four doors, two of which are automated, and there's a second set of doors after the vestibule."

"Twenty years ago, there's no way we'd be able to walk on our own to find a restaurant," says Kevin Satizabal, a blind musician and an online communities assistant for the Royal London Society for Blind People. "That's the great thing about technology. It's letting people blend in and do everyday tasks with a lot greater ease."

Plays well with others

Other accessibility apps for the iPhone include the LookTel Money Reader to quickly identify more than 20 currencies and their denominations; Voice Dream reads out text from Web pages, PDFs, PowerPoint presentations and other files. The Be My Eyes app lets blind users video-chat with sighted volunteers for things like distinguishing between two cans of soup. KNFB Reader pulls text from photos taken with the iPhone.

But it's not just purpose-built apps for the blind that tap into the iPhone's assistive technology. Many people say some mainstream apps, such as Twitter and Periscope for social media and Uber and Lyft for ride-booking services, have well-designed accessibility, too.

"What I really get excited about are all these mainstream apps," says Blanks. "That's what really makes me feel part of society."

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Blanks' sentiment would likely have pleased Apple's late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who famously said "it just works" when talking about his company's products.

"We consider accessibility an integral part of what we build into our technology, not an add-on," says Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives. "It's a basic human right."

Almost there

Apple's device isn't the only smartphone to have accessibility features. Google's Android software also has text-to-speech and screen-reading features for phone makers to use. Microsoft, working with Guide Dogs UK, has developed a wearable system that creates a "3D soundscape" similar to BlindSquare.

But not all apps are created equal. Some lose their assistive benefits after being updated. Others add the features as an afterthought, instead of from the get-go.

Lisamaria Martinez, a blind woman who lives in Union City, California, likes a parenting app that explains her baby's milestones. But the app presents the information in an image of text, not text on its own. That means VoiceOver doesn't work. To get around it, Martinez takes a screenshot of the images, uses another app to pull the text out of the image and then translates the text into speech.

"It's super annoying," says Martinez, who works with Blanks at LightHouse. "The problem is people don't think about accessibility from the design stage."

That's what LightHouse and other advocacy groups want to change.

"With the right support, we can do a lot of things that people didn't think we could do," says Perez, the avid photographer who also teaches people to use technology.

"This is the best time in history to be blind."

This story appears in the spring 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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