Microsoft's newest app tells the blind what's around them

This is the latest experiment from the software giant that uses artificial intelligence in an unusual way.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
2 min read

We're officially living in the future.

No, there aren't any flying cars (yet). And sorry, we still can't easily travel the stars either. But one promise of the future, computers that can help blind people see, is starting to arrive.

The latest example is Microsoft's Seeing AI, a free iPhone app released Wednesday that "narrates the world around you." Point it at a park, and it'll tell you what the scene looks like. Point it at a person, and it'll tell you if they're smiling. Point it at a dollar bill, and it'll tell you how much. It'll even tell you about a product when you scan it.

"Just hold up your phone and hear information about the world around you," Microsoft promises.

It seems almost magical when you first hear about it. But the even better news is that Microsoft is far from alone in tackling this problem. Apple , Google, Facebook and Amazon are working on similar projects. 

Facebook, for example, discussed in February how it's been using AI to describe what's in photos on your news feed. And Apple's been using voice-over to help blind people learn to code. (You can read about other tech for the disabled community in our ongoing series Tech Enabled.)

This is also the latest project from Microsoft built using its artificial intelligence technology. The company has also released tools for video game developers to build games you can talk to, for instance. Microsoft also built a Twitter program called Tay that it hoped could simulate the sort of conversations a teenage girl might have. That project, though, was shut down after trolls taught Tay to hate feminists, praise Adolf Hitler, and solicit sex.