This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas highlighted a completely new category of startups – innovative initiatives specifically designed to improve the daily lives of blind or visually impaired people.

Tech firms want to improve UX for the visually impaired

Drawing on recent progress in voice recognition and robotics, ‘assistive technology’ designed to help people living with a disability are fast reaching maturity. According to US market research firm BCC Research, The total value of the US market for assistive technologies is expected to grow from $43.1 billion in 2015 to $58.3 billion by 2020. Illustrating the importance of this trend, the 2017 CES in January provided a space exclusively for startups working in this field. It appears that there is no shortage of initiatives, whether based on artificial intelligence (AI), ‘smart’ glasses, or sometimes on quite ‘low tech’ solutions, whose aim is to improve the daily lives of visually impaired people.

AI-based voice guide for the visually impaired

Some time ago we showcased on the French version of our website a promising startup called Aipoly, which has developed a mobile app for visually impaired people (article in French). Aipoly works with a visual recognition system fed by ‘deep learning’, which can help visually challenged smartphone users in their daily lives. All you have to do is place the phone’s camera near an object and the app will identify and name it almost instantaneously, thus helping the user to get a feel for what exactly is around him or her. The app, which works without Internet connection, is currently able to recognise up to 5,000 different objects. Aipoly won the ‘Best of Innovation’ Award at CES 2017, having already won a booth at the CES event a year earlier.

Smart glasses enabling remote assistance

On the hardware side, La Jolla, California-based startup Aira has developed a solution, which works with either Google Glass or Vuzix smart glasses and is designed to help blind people move around more freely, aided by remote voice guidance. The way it works is that a small camera embedded in the glasses transmits the ambient images to a real human assistant, an employee or agent acting for the company, who then basically becomes the user’s eyes, describing the environment very precisely and guiding his/her steps with a natural human voice. This assistant can also geolocate the visually-impaired user in real time. The service, available on a subscription basis, is particularly useful for visually challenged people trying for example to find their way around inside a supermarket or cross a busy street.

Layout of the screen as viewed by an Aira assistant (Photo: Aira)

Upgrading the digital experience of visually impaired people

The latest striking innovation was presented by Blitab, a startup founded by two Bulgarian engineers. Blitab has come up with the first tactile tablet designed specifically for blind and visually impaired people who read Braille. It enables people to read and write in Braille using a smart liquid which creates small physical bubbles that can be felt with the fingertips on the screen surface. The Blitab device, which has been built using the Android operating system and connects via WiFi or Bluetooth, is able to host a whole range of apps in the same way as a regular tablet.

Blitab’s tablet enables reading and writing in Braille (Photo: Blitab)

As one of the co-founders, Kristina Tsvetanova, explained on the TechCrunch stage at CES, most digital devices for blind and visually impaired people currently on the market are exorbitantly priced and yet offer only very limited functionality. Blitab, which set out to provide powerful tablets specifically intended to improve the digital experience of such users, has set a unit price of just $500.

It is clear that recent progress in artificial intelligence, coupled with the falling price of hardware, both favour the creation of solutions to aid visually impaired people. According to the World Health Organization, there are today some 285 million visually impaired people in the world. Moreover, over 90% of them live in what are described as “low-income settings” – hence the urgent need to develop products that are both efficient and affordable.

By Pauline Canteneur