New app to help the blind ‘see’

Canned food from a supermarket shelf all feels alike in the hands of Mr Edwin Khoo, who is visually impaired. But now, instead of video-calling friends for help, Mr Khoo can snap a picture with his iPhone and tap into a network of over 400 volunteers who will send back text descriptions that will be read out to him, thanks to a new mobile application.

The MySmartEye app, developed by StarHub and advertising agency Tribal DDB, was launched yesterday for iOS and Android phones, after being tested for three months by 30 visually-impaired users. It came about after StarHub approached the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) with several ideas for apps it thought would “enrich lives”.

The telco noted the disparity between the smartphone penetration rate in Singapore on the whole and that of the visually-impaired — 153.2 per cent as of May, compared to the SAVH’s estimate of 20 per cent of its 3,300 clients. There is “potential for increased market penetration”, said StarHub.

Unlike similar apps designed for the blind which rely on image-recognition software to identify items, MySmartEye is supported by volunteers, which currently comprise StarHub staff and members of the public.

StarHub hopes that volunteers will provide “meaningful comments”, such as pointing out whether a banana is overripe, instead of simply identifying an object as a banana.

Speaking after the launch of the app yesterday, Mr Khoo, 36, a braille transcriber, said the app is useful for situations when a blind person is alone, such as when he is at home, and wants to know the colour of the shirt he has chosen. However, poor network service or a flat battery would render the app unusable.

Mr Michael Tan, SAVH Executive Director, said the adoption rate of smartphones among his clients is low due to affordability and awareness issues. He also pointed out that the app will only be effective if all the parties involved are active users.

To that end, the SAVH and StarHub are looking for phone sponsors to bump up the adoption rate of smartphones to 30 per cent of his clients.

StarHub also announced a new mobile plan for visually- and hearing-impaired persons. Called SmartBuddy, the S$26.60-a-month plan comes with 500 minutes worth of free outgoing calls, 5,000 SMSes and 6GB of data. In comparison, its least-expensive data plan, the S$38-a-month SmartSurf Lite, comes with 100 minutes of free outgoing calls, 800 SMSes and 2GB of data.

Prices of phones purchased with a two-year SmartBuddy plan are pegged to those of SmartSurf Lite.

Currently, M1 offers two plans for those who hold a Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) Hearing Help or Membership Card. It first launched service plans in 2000 and updated them in 2011 to include mobile data.

A SingTel spokesperson said it was working with organisations like SADeaf to explore a “suite” of services that could include mobile, broadband and other services for the hearing- and visually-impaired, adding that its existing Flexi mobile plans have been “popular” with this group of customers.

Source: TODAY