Life for blind people changed dramatically during the last two centuries. Since the 1784 foundation of the first school for blind children in France, both sighted people and non-sighted people have worked to improve quality of life for those with visual impairments.
One important recent development in advocacy was the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The landmark legislation guarantees that people living with blindness and other challenging conditions have a legal right to opportunities equal to those of their able-bodied counterparts. Today, because of the signing of the ADA, people living with visual impairment are protected from discrimination in America.
While no other milestone bills similar to the ADA have been passed in the last three decades, many people believe the next major advancement for those living with blindness will come from the tech sector. Many promising startups are working to improve the lives of those with severe visual impairment through a variety of cutting-edge devices. Listed below are three startups leading the tech revolution that could significantly improve quality of life for blind people.
Be My Eyes
Launched in 2015, Be My Eyes has garnered significant attention from major news outlets including NBC, BBC, CNN and CBS in its short four-year history. The company offers a smartphone application that relies on global community participation to provide visual assistance to those in need. To use Be My Eyes, a person with visual impairment requests assistance on the app and is promptly matched with a volunteer who speaks the same language. The person with visual impairment then uses the smartphone’s video call function to connect with the sighted volunteer and explain what is needed. Sighted volunteers provide help in a wide range of situations, including identifying bus stop locations or reading street signs, checking expiration dates on food, choosing an outfit for work or adjusting a thermostat.
To date, more than 110,000 people with blindness or low vision use the app, which is supported by approximately 1.8 million sighted volunteers. It is free to use and is especially notable for its fundamental reliance on good will and community. To learn more about the story behind Be My Eyes and the way it helps people with visual impairments to maintain their independence, go to www.bemyeyes.com.
Maptic is a wearable device set designed to help people with visual impairment navigate in a new way. A Maptic set includes one sensing device worn around the neck and two supporting feedback units that can either be worn around the wrist as a bracelet or hooked to clothing. The main sensor around the wearer’s neck scans their visual field for obstacles. When an obstacle is detected, the wearer is alerted through vibrations transmitted to the feedback units on the body. The devices also connect to a smartphone’s GPS, which allows Maptic to guide the user to their destination through vibrations that indicate a right turn or left turn.
Maptic is a unique tool for those with visual impairment since it can alert the wearer to obstacles at and above the chest level, which many other aids cannot do. Secondly, it does not require the wearer to use earbuds or follow auditory directions. This is important because the wearer is free to pay attention to ambient sounds that increase safety — for example traffic noises, people approaching or talking to them or a truck backing up. Thirdly, Maptic does not require the wearer to hold a smartphone, making it easier for those who need to carry an item or use a cane. As an additional bonus, Maptic was designed to look like a sleek, modern fitness tracker rather than a clunky medical device, providing a more discreet look.
Tactile is the product of a startup group of women who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s electrical and mechanical engineering programs. Featured in a 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Tactile is a real-time, text-to-braille converter. Currently, less than one percent of the world’s printed material has been translated into braille for the visually impaired. Much of the untranslated materials are important in daily life, such as mail, menus, brochures and daily newspapers. Though not yet available for mass market distribution, Tactile may be the functional answer to this problem.
Similar in design to a traditional scanner, a person uses Tactile by pressing a large, easily identifiable button and moving the device across a printed page of text. Once the document is scanned, the user presses the button again to signal to end of scanning. Immediately, the braille field located at the top of Tactile translates the printed page; the user navigates to the next line using buttons on the side of the device. People with visual impairments can also use the voice-over function on their smartphones to take a picture of a page of text and send it to Tactile via Bluetooth connection. Tactile will then translate the text in the picture.
Though there are other text-to-braille converters on the market, the team behind Tactile hopes to simplify the standard converter design and to make it the most affordable option on the market.