The Digit-Eyes Audio Scanner and Labeler (US$29.95) from Digital Miracles is a remarkable Assistive Technology (AT) app for the iPhone and iPod touch geared to the blind and visually impaired community. What it does is fairly straightforward once you get the big idea, but the implications of its uses are fairly mind-boggling.

The app does three things. The first and simplest is, using the built in camera, scanning UPC and EAN codes found on most everything. Taking advantage of the VoiceOver accessibility capability built into the iPhone/IPod touch, it searches a database, brings back the results and reads it to you. There is also a button to search Google for more information. That's really no big deal since a variety of barcode scanning apps such as Red Laser can do roughly the same thing. You need an Internet connection for this since you are referencing the Digit-Eyes database.

The second thing it does, is more compelling. Once you register for a free account on their site, you can create text labels for printing on over 50 sizes of standard Avery labels. Select a type of label and a template page is displayed full of empty boxes representing labels. In each box, type in up to 100 characters of anything you want the label to say.

Once done, all your text is transformed into a .pdf page of QR (quick recognition) codes like the one shown in the upper right corner of this post. Print the page on the Avery label stock, and stick each on whatever you wanted the label to say. For example, if you typed in "Blueberries bought on July 31st", you would stick that corresponding label on a container of blueberries. Then using the Digit-Eyes app, scan the label on the container and the screen will display and a voice will read back "Digit-Eyes label read: Blueberries bought on July 31st". The database of what's behind each label is stored on your iPhone so you won't need an Internet connection to access the information.

The third capability of Digit-Eyes is even better. Go to the site and print out a page of audio labels on the same Avery Labels and stick each one on something. The labels are empty, but serialized so each label has a unique number associated with it. Using Digit-Eyes, scan the label (when scanning you hear a tick every few seconds to tell you it's working and another sound when the scan is done) and the iPhone will display a screen with a Record button on it. Tap the button and speak whatever text you would like to have associated with the label. You can speak for as long as you like. Once done, tap the Stop Recording button and you'll see a brief screen saying Finalizing, while the app processes the audio file.

In a moment you'll hear your voice reading back what you spoke with a button allowing you to Stop Playback. After the sound file is played, Stop Playback becomes Scan which is displayed along with two other buttons marked Delete and Re-Record. If you liked what you heard, do nothing, but you are also given the options re-scanning, which erases the sound file and lets you start over and re-scans the label, deleting the connection of sound and label so the label can later be re-used, or re-record the voice memo that will be connected to the label. The next time you scan the label the recording will be read to you. All audio is stored on your device, so again you need no Internet connection. Everything is backed up when you sync, so if your iPhone breaks or gets lost, restoring on a new one will put everything right.

This may all sound rather complicated, but it's really not once you get the hang of just what's going on. The text labels when printed are already filled with content that you input, while the audio labels are empty but serialized, waiting for you to scan one and attach a voice memo to it that will be read back anytime the label is re-scanned.

I didn't get the idea at first, and had long conversations with Nancy Miracle, the president of Digital Miracles (with a name like Miracle, you just have to use it), about improving the extensive tutorial found on the Digit-Eyes site from an Instructional design perspective. It's been re-written just about from top to bottom and I think it's now extremely clear. What you need to understand is that Digit-Eyes is not an app that you can be productive with as soon as it's downloaded. it will take around 20 minutes of reading and practicing before the curtains are drawn and you realize what an achievement it is, and how wonderfully useful this can be for the blind or visually impaired.

So what can you do with it? There are many ideas to be found on the site but they just scratch the surface since you can really do anything that will assist the blind with identifying objects. Put some labels on cans, that all feel the same, and it will prevent you from opening a can of dog food when you really want peas. Differentiate between bottles of wine. Take some audio labels to the drug store and when the pharmacist explains the three different bottles of prescription pills, record an audio label detailing what the pill is and the dosage instructions and stick each on the corresponding bottle. Most pill bottles feels the same as do many pills, and I've never seen a UPC code on a prescription label. Put a label on all the doors at your place of work and you'll never knock on the wrong door again. Play the first few seconds of a CD since you've already mixed up the CD cases, record a label and put it on the jewel box while telling yourself to be more careful in the future. I can go on, but I think you get the picture.

The pricing needs to be addressed. There is a lite version for free which doesn't allow you to make audio labels or scan UPC/EAN codes, but does let you print and scan text labels. However, I think the real value is in the audio labels and that will cost you $29.95 at least until the end of September when the price may go up. Just like Proloquo2Go, the competition is stand alone uni-functional devices. An example of such a device is the ID Mate Summit which costs $1299. This uses an actual red laser to scan UPC/EAN codes. You wear it around your neck, which is far more intrusive than having an iPhone in your pocket, and you can scan codes that are read to you. There is also the ability to add voice memos to the codes that are stored on a SD card. The database for the Summit is more extensive and gives a lot more information than provided by Digital-Eyes by scanning. It also does a few more tricks, but it costs $1269.05 more. For a lot less money you can get the non-portable Metrologic Scanner for $299. This standalone scanner needs to be tethered via USB to a Windows computer that already has screen reading software installed. Probably the most popular software is JAWS, at a cost of $895.

But what if you want screen reading capabilities on another smartphone? You can add voice to phones running the Windows or Symbian OS for $295 by buying Mobile Speak, and that doesn't include scanning software. There are a number of free screen readers for Google's Android OS, but there is no standardization of gestures and many of the products are considered by the blind to be inaccessible. The iPhone is the most reasonable platform. According to Nancy Miracle, the fact that Apple has integrated VoiceOver into the phone, that VoiceOver uses common gestures across all platforms, and that VoiceOver comes at no extra charge are all huge advantages. She said that if she were selling iPhones instead of software at various AT conventions she would have made a fortune.

Digit-Eyes, by leveraging the power of VoiceOver, offers the blind and visually impaired a truckload of functionality for a price that's laughingly cheap. Instead of just being an app, it's a total system incorporating labels printed from the web site and scanned on the iPhone, giving users a total solution to an unfathomable number of problems. It does this in an non-intrusive manner that doesn't require the blind to carry or wear a device that broadcasts that they are visually impaired. Digit-Eyes is just one of an ever increasing list of AT apps that prove, once again, that the iPhone is the best mobile device on the market for the Assistive Technology community.

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