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introducing the blindspot cane

National University of Singapore student, Selene Chew, has invented a new white cane for the blind that has built-in smart phone GPS capability. This allows for the VI (vision impaired) user to navigate an unfamiliar setting and find their friends with more ease. Up to this point, blind people were “lost” until their friends found them; the new BlindSpot cane now empowers the VI person to find others even with as much detail as telling him/her in which direction and how many more steps to go until the destination is reached.

The cane’s handle contains a specially designed phone connected to a Bluetooth earpiece with audio interface. Then a trackball on the handle helps point the person in the right direction. All that’s needed is for the friend to check in on a location sharing service such as Foursquare.

And for an even more rudimentary function, the BlindSpot cane helps its user avoid common pitfalls of every day strolling; an ultrasonic sensor detects obstacles a regular white cane would otherwise miss like low hanging tree limbs. Today’s white cane can only find sidewalk cracks and curbs but will not help a blind person avoid things not on the foot path. The BlindSpot cane, however, can sense these obstacles and then send a warning to the Bluetooth earpiece.

Chew has been recognized for her innovations and is currently seeking a partner to help bring the BlindSpot cane to market. (Kickstarter, perhaps?)

holiday gifts for the blind

If you’re like most people, this time of year is not always one of family fun and relaxation. It’s a season of hustle and bustle, of scouring the malls and web for that perfect gift (or gifts) for your spouse, child, grandchild, best friend, crazy aunt, postal carrier. No, the holidays are not stress-free at all. And if you’ve got a visually impaired person on your Christmas list, you may be at an even greater loss as to what to get her.

Not to fear. The folks over at AccessWorld have put together their annual list of holiday gifts for the sight-impaired. The list includes iProduct accessories so they can dress up that iPhone, iPad, etc. Check it out and get some great ideas to give to that special sight-impaired someone in your life. Now visually fine crazy Aunt Wanda? Can’t help you there.

steve jobs, the genius behind apple who pioneered accessible technology, dies at 56

Tonight as I was covered in flour from making chicken marsala, my iPhone kept ringing over and over, the caller persistent in reaching me. Finally after washing my hands, I swiped and double-clicked via the clever VoiceOver technology and found that it was my husband calling from his evening jog to tell me Steve Jobs had died. I asked my Apple fanboy of a husband if he cried, and he said, “Almost.” When I hung up, I texted a friend, and as I returned to the sizzling pan, I was surprised to find myself sad beyond what I’d expected of such news.

Steve Jobs became a household name after I met my now husband who turned me on to Apple products back in 2007. Since his own conversion years prior, John had converted dozens of friends, family, acquaintances, and even sometimes strangers perusing the computer aisle at Best Buy on to Apple. Since the iPod, Steve Jobs has become a household name everywhere, his innovative products popping up in homes across the globe. People ate up the iPod, then the Macbooks, then iMacs and Mac Minis and iPads–nobody had ever seen anything like those Apples.

The story behind Apple and their history with Steve Jobs is fascinating, and the world will get to read all about it come November 21 when the long-awaited Steve Jobs biography is released. Even months before it’s stocked on the bookshelves, Steve Jobs’s biography has been a top selling pre-ordered item on Amazon. Timely coincidence that the biography was due out on bookshelves so close to his passing? Maybe, but supposedly the book’s release was pushed up to November because everyone knew Steve wasn’t doing well, this notion only fortified by his resignation as Apple’s CEO only months before. And now with his passing, there is no doubt the book will be a bestseller.

Tonight, even the Apple website, which is always littered with product advertisements, only displays a full-screen portrait of Jobs with his life span, “1955-2011.” I can only imagine the ferocious dumping of Apple stock tomorrow once that morning bell rings on Wall Street.

Apparently, death escapes no one.

In Steve Jobs’s commencement speech to Stanford’s Class of ’05, he says:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

No matter if you’re a refugee who had been working toward a triple degree in law, philosophy, and literature before escaping from a war-ravaged country on a naval ship; or if you’re a creative genius who changed the face of technology; no matter if you were my mother or if you were Apple’s CEO; death is the destination we all share. (You should really read Steve Jobs’s commencement speech–it is truly awesome and inspirational.)

It is an eerie coincidence that Steve died the day after the latest Apple announcements, but his legend lives on. The new iPhone 4S boasts Siri, the virtual assistant that lets you communicate with your phone as though you were speaking to your butler or KITT the Knight Rider car. John had been harping about this new phone feature for the past several weeks, and while I admitted it was cool, I wasn’t sold; a part of me wanted to hold out for the next round numbered model up: the iPhone 5. But then tonight, John played me this video, and I think I’m in love.

John told me the last woman in the video is reading Braille and then uses the new iPhone 4S to text her friend. More power to the blind!

Apple has changed the world. Steve Jobs had changed Apple. By transitive property, Steve Jobs changed the world. He envisioned every household owning a personal computer. He envisioned it, and then he made it possible. And he made it so that even blind people could use it. He empowered everyone. He empowered the blind.

Thank you, Steve Jobs. May you live on in our innovations.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

iphone app helps the blind identify color

Today I continue my rave about the iPhone

Because I used to have vision, I know what colors look like. That is, I know that white is lighter than black, what red or blue or purple look like. But what if I had been born completely blind? Even now as I acquire new clothes in my wardrobe, how do I know where the shirt belongs in the scheme of things? (I organize my clothes in ROY G. BIV order–something I did even before I lost my vision.) How do I know if my new tank top matches better with my silver or gold shoes? First, you need some fashion sense and color coordination skills already ingrained in your brain; For that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But if you can’t tell what color the new tank top is, if you just can’t see well enough to know if it’s red or green (two colors that my washed out eyesight mixes up often), then Apple has an app just for you.

Kolorami is an app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch that helps the color-blind and vision-impaired identify colors. Making sure there’s ample lighting for the camera to pick up the shade, hold the iPhone/iPad/Touch up to the thing you’re trying to figure out–say, about a couple of inches from it. Then click on the “Determine Color” button, and within a few seconds, the app will break down the color for you: “10% brown, 90% dark brown.” Ah, yes. Gold shoes it is.

I’ve tested the app out on clothes I’ve had since before my vision loss so I knew not only which color it is but exactly the shade, too, just to see how accurate it is. I find that Kolorami usually gets it right in the general ballpark of the color, but it can often be off in identifying percentages of shade. E.g. the thing I tested it on earlier was really beige, so it would’ve been more accurate if it said, “90% light brown, 10% brown.”

I’ve also read that some people use the Color Identifier app (like my aforementioned fellow blind blogger), but I have yet to try this app out. Color Identifier (or Color ID) seems to have more versions (including one that costs $1.99 in addition to the free one) and ratings (compared to Kolorami’s free one with zero ratings). Has anyone tried both? What are your thoughts? Should I switch?

meet a fellow blind user of the iphone

Last week, I wrote about my personal love for the iPhone. This week, I know I’m not the only one. Austin Seraphin, a fellow blind blogger, had posted about his own love for the iPhone quite some time ago. My husband had sent me the link when his post went viral on Twitter, but I only got around to blogging about the iPhone recently. Not convinced by my argument on why the blind would benefit from having an iPhone? Take a look at Austin’s post–he’s much more technologically savvy than me. Thanks, Austin, for a thorough and entertaining read.

why i (and all you blind people should) love the iphone

iPhone

I heart iPhones.

By now, many in the sight-impaired community have discovered the Apple iPhone for its awesome accessibility features to help not only the visually but also the hearing impaired. With this being the Blind Cook’s blog, I will focus on the accessibility features for the blind user.

I’ve mentioned many times before that Apple products (i.e. Macbooks, iMacs, iPads, iPhones, iPods and iPod Touches) all come with VoiceOver, a text-to-speech application that will virtually read aloud everything on the screen for the blind user. A nice feature of VoiceOver is its human-like speech; Alex, the name Apple has given its most realistic sounding screen reader voice, employs tonal shifts and inflections, even pausing to “breathe.” No more robotic, monotonous voices of yesteryear.

My husband recently attended the An Event Apart design conference for web developers, where he met a woman who works at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. (A shout-out to any new readers from FSDB; hello from Houston!) John learned that the man at Apple responsible for developing the VoiceOver application is blind himself. This comforted me because who would make for a better tester for technology accessibility than a blind person? I’ve often come this close to emailing Steve Jobs himself asking to become a tester of VoiceOver functionality. As a student, a writer, and a blogger, I depend on my computer and cell phone every day, and I want to see Apple’s products get better and better with their accessibility.

Before my iPhone 3GS, I had a non-data Nokia RIZR which I used for making simple phone calls. I could not even send and receive text messages because I could not see what was on my screen. I did not even know who was calling me unless I had set that person’s ringtone to something unique (which I only did for a few people who called often). I could only dial people on my “favorites” list by scrolling down the memorized number of lines; everyone else in my contacts list I had to use voice recognition commands which were not always accurate. This was frustrating to say the least, but unaware of anything better on the mobile market, I had accepted this as my cellular fate.

One day after my Nokia had broken, John was researching cell phones to find which would be most suitable for me. I was this close to buying a Blackberry but could not commit to the difficult, tiny keyboard. Then by chance, John found an online video that reviewed the iPhone and how it is blind-friendly. How he could’ve missed this being the Apple fanboy that he is is beyond me. But I was just glad he found it–better late than never. What he learned was that a blind user could navigate the touch screen by swipes back and forth; up and down; using one, two, or three fingers. The VoiceOver reads aloud whatever your thumb touches, and if you swipe with one finger to the right, the cursor moves to the next app icon on the screen, or, if you’re inside an app, to the next image or form field or text in the app. Swipe with one finger to the left takes you to the previous item. Applying the same principles of left or up for “previous” and right or down for “next,” swiping with three fingers is like the PageUp and PageDown functions. Swiping with two fingers will read everything on the screen. To select an icon, button or button, or to activate a form field, double-click with your finger. If you take your thumb and forefinger (or any two fingers, for that matter) and swipe in a circular motion on the touch screen as though you were turning a dial, it will select different levels for navigation. E.g. you can select to navigate by the line, by the word, by the character, etc. After selecting the level, one swipe with one finger back and forth will scroll the cursor to the previous and next line, word, or character. Those, my friends, are the basic iPhone (and iPad) VoiceOver commands.

When I first got the iPhone 3GS back in December 2009, the VoiceOver was great but after updates, it, it is even better. For example, now upon scrolling over a letter, after a pause, Alex will say the military alphabetic equivalent of that letter. This aids in lessening the confusion I once had between similar sounding letters like “M” and “N”, or “B” and “V.” Now I will hear “M…Mike” or “N…November,” and “B…Bravo” or “V…Victor.” Another improvement I noticed was now the “back” button to get to a previous screen when inside an app is more intuitive in that it actually says “back” after “hovering” over the button. (In the previous VoiceOver version, it would only read aloud the name of the button, so I wouldn’t know if it actually was a functioning button or not.)

The new iPhone 4GS is set to release in stores this September, and perhaps if you can wait long enough, rumor has it that iPhone 5 will come out next year. If you are sight-impaired and on the market for a phone, I highly recommend the iPhone. It is by far the superior cell phone for the sight-impaired.

Hadley recently aired a seminar about the Apple i- products. Visit the Everything i page to check when they will have an audio recording available of the seminar.

Have an iProduct? Tell me what you think of it. Want an iProduct? Have questions about one? Leave a comment.

blind driving in our future?

Ever since I lost my vision, one of the things I miss most is driving. I used to love driving alone on a beautiful sunny day with the windows down, the sun roof open, and music blaring from my after-market sound system. Driving gave me a sense of independence, and losing my vision meant losing driving which meant losing independence. So when I heard about this project at Virginia Tech, it was an answer to my most pressing wish.

Using robotics, laser rangefinders, GPS, and smart feedback tools, Dennis Hong is working on designing a car that will allow blind people to “drive” independently. He notes that it is not a self-driving car, but rather one that allows a vision-impaired person to gauge speed, proximity, and route. Hong is the founder and director of RoMeLa, a Virginia Tech-based robotics lab responsible for many developments in the field of robotics. Perhaps we’ll be driving in our lifetime? Watch out, everybody!

Here is the TED Talk where Hong describes the project.

it’s about time the blind get a fashionable watch

Concept tactile wristwatch

Concept tactile wristwatch

I previously blogged about the Haptica Braille watch, but now there’s news of a new concept watch in the making that may give Haptica a run for their money. Jacob Rynkiewicz is designing a sleek watch with a rubber wristband that should be easy to put on and take off. Instead of numbers, there are tactile markers on the face of the watch so that a person could potentially feel with their fingers which way the dial hands are pointing, and thus, telling time. Perhaps the advantage of this watch to the Haptica is that the user doesn’t have to know Braille to know the time. As far as looks go, I obviously don’t know which one is more fashionable. What do you think? Lend me your eyes.

the looktel money reader app for phones helps the blind sort their cash

Did I ever tell you I love my iPhone? I got the iPhone 3GS in December 2009 after John discovered that it is the most accessible phone for blind users. With Apple’s incredible VoiceOver feature that reads aloud practically everything on the iPhone (and other Apple products such as the Mac computers and iPads), I can virtually do everything a sighted person can do on their iPhone. For example, I can now send text messages, have text messages read aloud to me, check and reply to emails, find a certain podcast in my iPod app, check the weather, etc., because the VoiceOver function will orate everything to me.

In a recent post, I complained about the U.S. currency bringing an unfair disadvantage to the blind; the identical size of every denomination made it impossible for the vision-impaired to discern between different bills. Why, I said, could the U.S. not follow other countries’ examples and issue ddifferent sized bills?

Well, it seems that LookTel, a company that promotes independent living for the blind with their mobile object recognition and remote assistance solutions, has come up with a phone app that will solve the dilemma for blind users. Introducing the LookTel Money Reader. Featuring LookTel’s patented and proprietary object recognition technology, currency can be instantly recognized in real time using the mobile phone’s camera. The real time function aids in getting information at our fingertips quickly without having to capture the bill’s image by taking a photo and waiting to get data returned. Just by holding the currency and hovering the phone camera a few inches away from the currency’s surface with the Money Reader app open (and thus activated), a calm woman’s voice will, within seconds, tell you which denomination you’ve got in your hands. The app doesn’t require an internet connection so you can read your currency anywhere, any time, as long as you’ve got some cash and the app.

My friend, Jade, originally told me about this product but at the time, it was not yet available on iPhones. Then a few weeks ago, John told me it was on the iPhone, and you can bet I was on that like white on rice. I downloaded the app on my iPhone for $1.99 and tested it out. Indeed it is pretty savvy and could recognize $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills in a matter of seconds. (Yes, I actually had a $2 bill in my possession from a Lunar New Year many years ago.) Now I no longer have to ask John which bill is which before folding it up into my wallet in different shapes. LookTel is in the midst of coming out with several apps for the visually impaired. Keep a look-out for future posts on their products. Thanks, LookTel, for making my life just a little bit simpler!

design concept: haptica braille watch

My husband told me about this a few weeks ago but stupid me forgot to blog about it, and now there’s only one day left to support the project. Doh! John and I have each individually pledged money towards the project, and I urge you on behalf of stylish blind people everywhere to do the same.

Because products for the visually impaired are such a niche market, things designed for the blind are often awkward, not well thought out, bulky, less functional. Moreover, they’re downright ugly. Why do the products need to look nice? The consumer is, after all, blind.

Before I lost my vision, like typical young women, I enjoyed looking stylish. I liked shopping for the latest trends. Why should that change after I lost my vision? One of my biggest gripes about being blind is the availability of accessories that are not only nice looking but also functional, e.g. wallets, watches, etc. Well, now there’s a chance for us blind folk to finally don something fashionable. Introducing the Haptica Braille watch, a design concept of a watch that not only looks good but allows for the blind user to check the time without disrupting others. Currently, the only watch that blind people like me can use are talking digital watches, but when I’m in class, checking the time would interrupt the discussion. And sometimes, I’m just counting down the minutes till class ends. Now with this Braille watch, I’d be able to check the time without having to listen to a mechanical voice speak the time aloud.

So please, on behalf of blind people everywhere, support this project today. They need to have $150,000 pledged by Friday, March 4 in order for the concept to enter production.