Out of the Darkness: Google and Mobile Apps for the Blind

Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.

-Jorge Luis Borges, The Other

In The Other, the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ wild fantasia of light regret, the character “Borges” meets his younger self on a bench, and at one point tells him that his (their) blindness is not a tragedy. Perhaps for the real Borges, it wasn’t. He had a prodigious memory for his beloved books; the late Christopher Hitchens liked to tell a story of visiting the old genius, who asked him to read a certain poem, the location (and page!) of which he still remembered among his vast labyrinth of shelves. Perhaps blindness suited Borges, as he was famously a man of patterns and routine, who never strayed far from his house, and whose sedate lifestyle was complemented by the immense and world-encompassing powers of his imagination.

Mobile apps for the blind
Mobile apps for the blind can help bring some light into the darkness.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone is Borges, though. Few have the memory, and fewer still want to walk the same way so many times that they can do it blindly. For many, blindness is not a gift to their art, but a challenge to be overcome. They are more than up to it and able to see the world in ways that those with sight can’t, but there are still limitations and frustrations. Google, the Mountain View giant who long ago turned their attention to more than just search engines, is at the forefront of mobile apps for the blind, which will help them to overcome any challenges they might face.

Enter Ray Kurzweil

Any longtime reader of this blog will know that we, like most people, have a certain ambivalent fascination with Ray Kurzweil, the father of the Singularity, the brilliant bio-ethicist, and a Google director charged with their future projects. Kurzweil isn’t just some guru, however. He is an amazing inventor and engineer, one of the leading pioneers in artificial intelligence. And while we are unsure about transcending biology–we may like the idea of getting past balding, hangovers, the gnawing grief of death, and tennis elbow, but we worry about some practical applications and inequalities–there is no doubt that Kurzweil has already made the world a far better place.

This is a man, after all, who first made his name with a pioneering text-to-speech reader in 1978, back when most people were still blown away by Pong. This helped the blind to “read,” to have a way to translate printed material into speech. Very few things even today are printed in Braille. Of course, it was still very complicated, and if you have, say, an instruction manual, it isn’t just going to start talking.

Maybe. Now, with a new app developed by Kurzweil and the National Federation for the Blind, translating text into speech is a mobile project. All you have to do is point and shoot. That instruction manual? Just point your phone’s camera at it and your phone will read it to you. This is amazing for large things, such as bills, street signs, or books, but also for the little things that make up daily frustrations for the blind, like trying to pick a movie from a stack of DVDs. It’s how Meet Me In St. Louis turns into Meet the Spartans.

The future of mobile apps for the blind and artificial sight

Mobile apps for the blind didn’t start with Kurzweil, of course. For all the frivolous applications there are out there, from the very beginning of the mobile revolution, people have tried to make a difference in the world. There are some that “crowdsource” help, and there are many that use GPS or translation tools to help people navigate. The possibilities of mobile apps for the blind are nearly endless.

I remember a year or so ago I was on a long train journey, and it so happened that the town I was leaving had just held a conference for blind activists and educators, and so I happened to be one of the few people in my car who wasn’t blind. The man behind me had a smartphone that could read where we were, down to the street and business, so while I was looking out the window, his phone was telling him the small towns we were rolling through, the names of the streets, and the businesses on it. Obviously he couldn’t actually see them, but it gave him an idea, a concept of what it was, whereas before it would have just been darkness.

It isn’t hard to imagine a near future where new technology like Google Glass gets saved from the dustbin of opprobrious backlash and reimagined as a way for blind people to navigate. They can walk down the street with accurate GPS telling them where to go, with mobile apps for the blind hooked into a smartgrid telling them if a light is green or red, if they are near their building, or what it is they are walking toward. Since the first man lost his sight, blind people have recreated the world using their courage, strength, determination, and imagination. Mobile apps for the blind look to humbly augment that.

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