Launched in Australia this month for iOS devices, Microsoft’s Seeing AI app has been eagerly awaited by many people in the blind and low vision community.
Using the inbuilt camera of the iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, Seeing AI includes facial recognition, optical character recognition and object recognition functionality, as well as a barcode reader.
With it being the latest in a wide range of assistive apps that are available for smart devices, we spoke to Vision Australia’s Access Technology Lead David Woodbridge about how the app can support people who are blind or low or have low vision in everyday life.
Convenience - For David, one thing that sets Seeing AI apart from other assistive apps is the number of features that it combines.
“There are other apps out there that can provide facial recognition, scan barcodes or provide text to speech, but this is the first one that combines them in one,” David says.
“If I want to check who a piece of mail is from and then check what’s in the freezer I can do that all without having to switch back and forth between apps. It doesn’t sound like much but it really makes things much more convenient,” he said.
Functionality – While David said he’s unlikely to use some of the functions of Seeing AI in day-to-day life, the barcode reader, short text reading and document recognition functions have all been well developed.
“With the short text reader, you just open it up and it starts to read what you’re looking at straight away. There’s no need to take a photo of the text and then wait for the app to translate the text like you do with others.
“The barcode reader also beeps when it starts to detect the bar code so you know you’re getting close and then just reads it. It may not sound like much, but I don’t know how many times I’ve waved other barcode reader apps over something without knowing if I’ve found the barcode or not.”
“Things like the above really do make a difference, already I’m thinking that it’s going to make things like cooking that much easier.”
The app also comes with concise text and short video tutorials for each function, which David says is very helpful.
“The app is pretty easy to navigate, but if you do need some help you can access the tutorial by pressing the same location on the screen no matter what function you’re in and you’re able to watch the tutorial.”
Value for money – While it may still need some improvements, David said the fact that Seeing AI is free is another feather in its cap.
“There are still ongoing improvements to the app, indeed Microsoft encourages feedback which you can do from within the app itself, but overall Seeing AI is a very solid app from Microsoft. There are some apps out there that are very expensive and don’t do things as well as Seeing AI, so the fact that it’s free is definitely a bonus.”
Limited release – With it currently only available for iOS devices, David said it’s unfortunate that people who use Android will miss out.
“Hopefully it’s something that will be worked on so it can help anyone. Obviously Apple devices are popular, but not everyone uses them.
Improvements needed: While the idea of facial and scene recognition may seem like good ones, David says there’s still a long way to go before they become truly practical.
“The scene recognition isn’t something I’d be relying on too much. It’s a good idea, but it still seems to struggle to identify a lot of things.
“Microsoft does state that the Scene Recognition is experimental. There’s just so many things it needs to recognise that I think it’s going to be a little while before it becomes something you would use every day.”
Similarly, David believes the facial recognition system also has some room for improvement.
“Facial recognition is good in theory, but it’s a bit impractical to use it on a smartphone. You have to take your phone out ask the person to stand still and then take a photo of them.
“If somebody knocks on my door or if I’m in a meeting and somebody says something to me I’m more likely to ask them to introduce themselves rather than pull out my phone.”
With Seeing AI the brainchild of one of the biggest tech companies in the world, David hopes its release is a good sign in terms of increasing accessibility.
“I think everybody knows that Apple has made accessibility an important part of their products for some time now and in recent years Microsoft has really made an effort in that area too.
“Hopefully what we’ll see now is Apple and Microsoft start to drag the other big names like Google and Amazon along with them and they’ll start making improvements too.”
David also hopes that the current Seeing AI is just a starting point, as he believes there are further capabilities that could be added to the app.
“One thing I’d like to happen is for the scene description function upgraded so it gives a description of an area, for example it could tell you you’re in a room that is so many metres long by so many metres wide.
“The other thing that would be a great addition would be a currency recogniser.”