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Assessing apps for the blind

Eliza Cooper, a blind social media consultant, helps critique new apps aimed at blind users of the iPhone.

iPhone screen shots of LookTel Money Reader
LookTel Money Reader is one of several apps aimed at blind users. An artificial voice helps identify the value of U.S. currency notes by saying the denomination out loud. (Credit: LookTel Money Reader)

This blog is meant to examine the world of social media, but sometimes I will stray into the world of apps because so many of them are inherently social, even if they aren't technically of or about social media itself.

When I review and critique apps, I plan to ask, on occasion, for experts with specific knowledge to share their insights with all of us.

So when I heard about an iPhone app aimed at the blind, I turned to someone better suited to the task than anyone else I know. More on her in a minute.

Since the first time I heard about blind users of the Web and wrote about them in a New York Times article in 1996 ("Blind Users Add Access to the Web"), I have been fascinated with the ways in which the visually impaired navigate the online world the sighted take for granted. They are able to do incredible things online, including running professional Web sites and making their living off technology in other ways.

One of those folks is Eliza Cooper (@Elizain140), a social media consultant in New York City. In addition to other projects, she is administrator of my SreeTips Facebook page and has taught me the importance of keeping content accessible to screen readers (which the blind use to listen to Web pages and phone apps). Clearly Facebook is accessible, as she is able to do a terrific job with my Facebook page and she is also a prolific user of Twitter.

I asked Eliza to review the app in question and what follows is Eliza's own words (and even her code as she sent me the HTML file for me to plug into our CNET content management system.

Eliza Cooper is a social media manager and consultant who focuses on the quality and creativity of social media content in attracting and engaging fans. Blind since age three, Eliza is an assistive technology aficionado and expert in what makes apps and programs accessible and useful to blind users.

Is there an app for you?

If you are among the minority of blind and visually impaired users of Apple's products, you've probably know that the answer is an unequivocal yes. Apple is the first company ever to make their computers and smartphones accessible out of the box to someone who is blind, and for this reason, there is a tangible buzz about accessible third-party apps and app development on sites like AppleVis and on e-mail listserves.

Ipplex, masterminds behind the Looktel suite of apps, is the developer to watch for apps specifically useful for blind and visually impaired techies.

The Looktel Money Reader, which recognizes any bill of major currency held up to the iPhone's camera, made a huge splash when it came out last year and raised the bar for other developers. Whereas clunky, pocket-sized money identifying machines cost around $100, this simple app costs just under $2.

Now Ipplex has released a new app called Recognizer, which allows a blind or visually impaired user to identify cans, packages and ID and other cards by scanning them with the iPhone's camera. Though a potentially brilliant concept, Recognizer is disappointingly expensive and flawed.

In order for a blind person to begin identifying the contents of their cabinets, they must enlist a sighted person to take accurate pictures of each object they want to identify and record that object's title into the app's "library." And you cannot just catalog one can, either, you must do them all, or the app will identify them all with the same name and description.

Granted, when your library is complete, Recognizer identifies your objects with admirable speed and accuracy; but in a world where technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and where blind people increasingly value living independent lives, this app does not fit. There are other apps that, though a little clunkier, read bar codes and labels with fair reliability for less money. As of this writing, the app has received no ratings or reviews on Apple's App Store, when its predecessor the Money Reader received instant acclaim.

Ipplex reports on its website that it is developing an OCR app that will convert printed text on a page into spoken word, and I have confidence that they could do a fantastic job. Every blind user I know is dying for such an app, for all the competition is unreliable at best. Frankly, Ipplex would have been smarter to release their OCR app before Recognizer, which will hurt, rather than boost, their reputation. Reading my mail and menus at restaurants on my own is way more important at this point than identifying contents of cans and packages -- my senses of taste, touch and smell are still extremely accurate in that regard.

Here are two videos of LookTel apps, created by the company:

Readers: Please post your thoughts in the comments below or e-mail me or tweet me at @sree or #sreetips on Twitter.