Ways in which cameras help the blind

What I get out of a camera as a blind person
I’ve been politely asked, “how do you read messages or email on a computer?” a less common question is “How did you take that picture?”

In the old days
When I was a kid, I remember being annoyed because I would have to stand nice for pictures, and some times several times for the same picture. That was back when cameras used film. When I went to Brazil as an exchange student, my Mom gave me a basic camera hoping that I might occasionally send back some pictures, which I did. Once though, a batch of pictures were lost on the way back to my family in the States; a digital camera would have been much better. My school district in Wisconsin gave me an optacon which also has a camera, so that I could read type-written letters. This was very helpful, as my host family in Brazil didn’t know very much English.

Early digital cameras
15 years later I bought my first digital camera. I had been scanning books with a flatbed scanner for 10 years and was frustrated that scanning took so long. I thought with a camera scanning would go much faster. Friends built a nice stand that almost looked like a coffee table with a glass top. I would put the book on the top face down and the camera was attached to a tripod mount in the base of the table. It worked, more or less, but the scans though way faster weren’t quite as accurate as with a flatbed; it was ahead of its time.

As digital cameras have progressed
in recent years, cameras especially on smartphones have become very useful to blind people. there are apps like the KNFB Reader and Prizmo that can read anything from a single page to entire books. There are apps like Seeing AI and Envision AI that can not only read short documents, but also identify objects, and even look through pictures in a camera roll and identify things in those.

Several years ago, the camera app on iPhones began to tell a VoiceOver user how many faces were in the camera view, but now recently will tell you what objects it can see in general. You can aim the camera around and it will tell you what’s around you. This is a really fun feature to use when walking down a sidewalk. Sighted people have found it helpful to have their iPhones identify plants, trees, or lookup information about well known objects in their pictures. This is as much if not even more a benefit to blind iPhone owners. If the phone successfully identified a famous landmark, this could make a blind person traveling in an unfamiliar area more confident.

Specific talking money readers to identify dollar bills used to cost $100 or more. American hasn’t yet designed their paper currency so that blind people can identify it by touch. There are apps that can identify the color of objects, blind people can use this to coordinate their clothes and avoid color clashes.

Dr. Paul Bach-y-rita experimented for almost forty years and at the end of his life his research culminated with the BrainPort artificial vision device, produced by the company he formed called Wicab. The BrainPort is so revolutionary, that it has actually changed how i think about how I Imagine or remember things in my mind.

There is also an app called vOICe (seeing with sound)  that can run on both iOS and Android that converts images picked up by the phone’s camera into a soundscape interpreted by the blind user. Many have learned to use it and have also found their lives changed for the better.

Tech enthusiasts often talk about augmented reality and the next Google Glass. I and other blind people are already fantasizing over how they could help us with all the information they could gather and tell us through text to speech.


I have already written in the past about how cameras already today could identify people for us, and how a variant on the security cam idea could help blind people avoid mistakes in their homes.

When I was a kid, I thought cameras were annoying and useless. Now, more and more, they are filling the visual gaps my eyes which never worked, never could.

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