Microsoft’s “Seeing AI” App Could Be a Game Changer for the Visually Impaired

On Wednesday, Microsoft released its Seeing AI app for iOs users. Intended for the blind and visually impaired, the app uses the iPhone or iPad camera to help them identify objects, products and even people that have previously been added to its database. It can also read text, scan bar codes and detect emotions on people’s faces. And it relays all that information to the user through the device’s speaker. Perhaps the most useful feature of Seeing AI is that it is able to recognize bill denominations – something that is often a problem for the visually impaired, as all paper bills are the same size and so practically impossible to tell apart if you can’t see what you’re holding. Pretty neat.

The app is free, which is good news for all of those who want to give it a go. The downside is that Microsoft hasn’t yet told us whether it will be available for Android users, which means that it is only available to a small percentage of users at the moment. Meryl Alper, who is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, sees promise in the app but also some drawbacks. She claims that “While the app is initially available for Apple’s iOS, about 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in low-income settings, according to the World Health Organization, with an iPhone likely financially out of reach.” So here’s hoping that Microsoft is working on making the app available to Android users, as well as iOs users.

For those who can use the app, however, the promise of a better understanding of their surroundings is appealing. If one loses its way, for example, and isn’t sure what’s in front of them, Seeing AI will be able to tell them they are facing a door, or a street lamp, or the couch. Granted, Microsoft’s app will not replace a seeing-eye dog, cane or braille, but it could prove useful in many situations where these tools aren’t helpful. You can teach your dog to help you cross the street and guide you to your destination, but it’ll never be able to tell you that your friend Joy is feeling sad or read you today’s specials from your favorite dive’s menu.

I think Seeing AI has promise, and if Microsoft makes it available to Android users, more people will be able to benefit from its service.

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