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5 Apps: The best camera apps for blind and visually impaired iPhone users

Chancey Fleet

After yesterday's post showing Tommy Edison's video demo of Instagram from a blind user's perspective, we thought it would be helpful to check with an expert and get some suggestions on other camera-centric apps for blind iPhone users. Today's 5 Apps guest post is from Chancey Fleet, an adaptive technology instructor at Jewish Guild Healthcare. -- Ed.

With the right apps, the iPhone's camera solves a slew of problems that blind people have traditionally relied on bulky, single-use devices to handle.

For the vexatious wad of unidentified cash in a pocket, purse or wallet, there's LookTel MoneyReader. This US$9.99 app uses object-recognition technology and the iPhone's bright LED flash to recognize currency almost instantaneously, even in low light or in a moving car. MoneyReader is savvy enough to recognize several different countries' bills, including the US Dollar, Euro, British Pound, Canadian Dollar and Australian Dollar.

Object recognition is also at the core of OMoby, which is designed as a visual search engine for products. This app excels at identifying tiny, identical-feeling toiletries; sugar packets; and, if you get your hand in the frame, "hand." OMoby is a free app, serving as a technology demo for the IQ Engines "visual intelligence" search API for developers.

Any blind person will tell you that rumors about the death of hard-copy print are exaggerated: from restaurant checks to office memos, there's still plenty. Blindsight's TextDetective captures document images and turns them into plain text, which can be read with Voiceover using speech output or Braille. The process takes only seconds and provides great results if you have a clearly printed document, good lighting conditions and a steady hand. (The first "reading machine," created in 1976 by legendary inventor and new Google staffer Ray Kurzweil, cost $50,000 and weighed 350 pounds. TextDetective costs $9.99. iPhone not included.)

Although several apps are purported to identify colors, they do a mediocre job compared to standalone devices like the ColorTest, which occlude all light around the object being tested, report patterns by playing fluctuating tones and recognize hundreds of shades.

Trying to sort laundry? Digit-Eyes updates the classic strategy of labeling clothes. Traditionalists do this with anything from safety pins to metal Braille tags: Nancy Miracle, Digit-Eyes's designer, suggests you do it with washable bar codes, which cue the Digit-Eyes app to play back an audio recording or text note you've made that corresponds to the specific code for each item.

The $19.99 Digit-Eyes app also looks up commercial bar code information, complete with package directions and nutrition facts; it also allows a user to print QR codes with embedded text. For blind workers who need a serious tool for fast and accurate inventory management, Ms. Miracle has helpfully reviewed two Bluetooth laser scanners from Serial-IO that read bar codes more quickly and in more diverse lighting conditions than does the iPhone camera. [We reviewed Digit-Eyes on TUAW in 2010. –Ed.]

No matter how much technology you have, it's a fact of life: sometimes, you just need to borrow a pair of functioning eyeballs. VizWiz can help with that. Simply take a photo, type or speak a question, and a web volunteer will get back to you -- usually within minutes -- with an answer. You can also opt to post your picture and question to Facebook, if you dare.

You can read more about Chancey and her experience of navigating New York City in this feature story on WNYC.

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