gadgets Technology Reviews

‘I no longer need a magnifying glass’: a visually impaired travel writer tests an app that ‘reads’ for him

Rob Crossan, a freelance journalist and radio presenter, has a visual impairment, and finds shopping for healthcare products less than straightforward. Will an app by Microsoft make it easier?

by Rob Crossan

What do you imagine would be the most important things to pack if you’re a visually impaired man with almost no skin pigment, who is about to go to a country where the temperature is often about 35C?

If you’re thinking: sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt and sun hat, then good, we’re pretty much aligned on this. But I’d be surprised if you’d said that what I also required for a week-long work trip to Lebanon was a large tube of industrial strength numbing cream.

Well, dear reader, that’s what I ended up bringing with me to Beirut, instead of the sunblock I’d intended to take.

Such are the perils of a) being in a hurry at the pharmacy in Gatwick airport’s south terminal and b) having a visual disability as a result of albinism.

As a professional travel journalist for the past two decades, you’d be right to assume that I might be a little bit more, well, professional about my packing. But, as my bylines for travel stories in various newspapers and magazines accrue in number, my vision has only gotten worse.

Albinism (which results in being exceptionally shortsighted as well as having little or no skin pigment) is an unchanging condition that people like myself are born with. But the nystagmus that comes with my strain of albinism (called “ocular”, if you must know) does get worse over the decades. This means that, for me, reading small- or even medium-sized print these days is a challenge that can lend itself to disasters such as buying numbing cream instead of sunblock, to the hilarity of my fellow writers on the trip to the Middle East.

Case study Rob Crossan has a degenerative eye condition, and can only see about 30% in one eye.
Quote: “Reading small-sized print is a challenge that can lend itself to disasters”
Pins on a map

Apart from using screen magnification software on my ageing laptop, I don’t go in for a lot of assistive technology in my life; even less so the tech that’s engineered for people who are blind or visually impaired. I mean, playing audiobooks is a classic example to me of how the “normally” sighted are now regularly using tech that those with worse vision have long been accustomed to.

Since I downloaded the Microsoft Seeing AI app though, it is making life a lot easier for me in pharmacies; places where reading a label had seemed to me to require eyesight powers greater than the Hubble telescope.

Haleon (which owns everyday health brands such as Aquafresh and Corsodyl toothpaste) has teamed up with Microsoft, and now provides labelling details on the app for its products. When I pick up what I hope is the rectangular box that contains toothpaste, I can, by simply holding it in front of my phone screen, get the information on what brand it is. The app will also read out key details about the product, such as the ingredients in the toothpaste, or, in the case of painkillers, the dosage instructions.

My days of taking an old-fashioned magnifying glass into a pharmacy and squinting in the manner of a waning private detective are, I’m certain, over for good. It almost goes without saying that, as a man in my 40s, it’s becoming more and more important to really know what I’m buying, and to refrain from reverting to my teenage maxim of “if it’s roughly something I can use, then my shopping trip wasn’t a disaster”.

Rob using Seeing AI

Now I have more vulnerable and sensitive teeth, for example, I really do want to buy Sensodyne and not just randomly grab whatever is on the nearest shelf to my left hand.

I tested an AI app for visually impaired people – and this is what I found

Read more

So what I – and I suspect many other people who are blind and visually impaired who use the Seeing AI app – am getting, is something that may seem effortless to those with full vision but has been a lifelong chore for me: namely I’m now able to buy the product I want without having to ask the shop assistant (who is never within 80ft of me in my experience). It also means I don’t go home with a toothpaste, deodorant or cream that I never wanted in the first place.

Of course, what I’d really like is an app that can help me read the ridiculously small menus that are located somewhere near the ceiling in late-night takeaways. I’m a bit bored with always ordering veggie burgers, as I simply have no idea what else is on offer, unless a friend is with me to translate the true detail of the deep-fried delights I hanker after at one in the morning.

But, in truth, I’m rather glad that apps to assist me with toothpaste and everyday health products rather than takeaways are in my life. Because getting the wrong kind of chunky chips is only a mere hiccup compared with travelling to the Levant with nothing to protect my skin but numbing cream.

Find out how Haleon is making healthcare labelling accessible for all. Download the Microsoft Seeing AI app for free from the Apple App Store


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