#TIL: 5 cool technologies aiding mobility for Persons with Visual Disability

By Apoorv Kulkarni

A man holding a white cane standing in front of a life-size smartphone. There is a microphone symbol in front of him.
Image source: A man holding a white cane standing in front of a life-size smartphone

Ever wondered how a person living with a visual disability navigates to their desired destination? For many, navigation involves use of visual cues. However, in absence of these inputs, blind and low vision individuals rely on other senses such as tactile feedback, sense of smell, hearing, along with a few very interesting technologies.

This October, on the occasion of Blindness Awareness Month, let’s take a look at 5 cool technologies which help in mobility for the Persons with Visual disability.

1. White cane

The humble white cane has given a sense of independence and agency to the visually disabled community around the world. They can be made out of different materials such as aluminium, fiberglass and carbon fibre. The construction material determines the white cane’s durability and weight. Canes can be foldable which are easy to carry or can be straight (non-foldable) which are more sturdy and provide better feedback. Lastly, the canes can have different tips such as pencil tip, roller tip, marshmallow tip, metal glide tip, etc. The different tips impact the overall weight of the cane, the quality of feedback, and the surfaces on which a cane can be used.

Image of different tips of a white cane
Image of different tips of a white cane
Image of different tips of a white cane

Lately, researchers and designers from India, The UK, the USA and Turkey are using technologies such as ultrasound, image recognition, etc. to make the white cane even more useful for the persons living with visual disability. These smart white canes are able to recognize faces, detect objects, connect with smartphones and function with apps like Google Maps.

Fun fact: October 15 is celebrated as the White Cane Safety day every year. On this day, amongst other things, motorists and cyclists are reminded to give a right of way to white cane users.

2. Screen readers with Maps on a smartphone

A screen reader is a software which reads the content displayed on a computer or mobile screen. Generally, smartphones come with an inbuilt screen reader called Voiceover (IOS) and Talkback (Android). These screen readers work with apps such as Google or Apple maps in providing directions for the persons living with a visual disability.

In 2019, Google announced a feature to provide detailed voice guidance to benefit its users living with a visual disability. This feature was initially made available in the US and Japan. The company plans to make this feature available in other markets in future.

Video demonstrating detailed voice guidance on Google Maps

3. Apps for spatial and location awareness

It is important to be aware of one’s current location and the surroundings. There are many apps which provide this information. A few examples include an Indian app called Eye-D, Microsoft Soundscape, and BlindSsquare.

4. Remote visual support on demand

There may be times when understanding visual cues becomes unavoidable, say, identifying a particular store in a market. At such times, apps such as Be My Eyes help connect people living with visual disabilities with volunteers who can guide them. The app uses the phone’s rear camera to provide a video feed to the volunteer who can then describe it to the blind or low vision individual requesting for assistance.

Video demonstrating use of Be My Eyes

5. Ride-hailing technology

The ability to hail a ride at the touch of a button has empowered millions of individuals around the world. The people living with a visual disability have similarly benefited by ride-hailing services such as Ola and Uber. These apps work with the screen readers on a smartphone and provide the freedom to go anywhere at any time. People living with visual disability can book a ride, pay for the trip and provide feedback using the apps.

Video demonstrating hailing a ride on Ola using Talkback in Hindi

Today I learnt (TIL) is a weekly series by OMI that brings you interesting nuggets of information that you didn’t know you needed.

Ola’s in-house policy research and social innovation think-tank! Follow for latest mobility insights and conversations. For website, visit https://ola.institute