Seeing AI empowers people who are blind or with low vision for everyday life

mother and young daughter reading a picture book

A mother and daughter celebrate the first anniversary of the app’s Japanese-language version

By Kumiko Tezuka,
Microsoft Japan

A mother and young daughter read a book
Akiko Ishii and her daughter Ami using Seeing AI to read a picture book together.

Akiko Ishii sits in her living room holding a picture book and balancing her four-year-old daughter, Ami, on her lap. It looks like a typical domestic scene in a typical Tokyo neighborhood, but there’s something special going on here.

Akiko is blind and her smartphone is doing the reading for her.

As the phone’s camera scans each page, Microsoft’s Seeing AI app reads out the text aloud. Akiko and Ami smile as they listen. With this technology, they can spend invaluable time reading together and bonding — just like mothers and children do anywhere.

Power of artificial intelligence

Seeing AI is a free app that narrates the world for the blind and low vision community. It’s the product of an ongoing research project that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to open up the visual world by describing nearby people, text and objects.

It’s currently available in 70 countries and a number of languages. The Japanese-language version was launched a year ago.

Seeing AI uses AI technology not only to recognize and read short text passages, documents, product labels and so on, but also to describe people and scenery captured by a mobile phone camera.

Akiko, who lost her sight as a result of surgery, was already using the English-language version of Seeing AI before the Japanese version was released.

“I’ve been using the Japanese-language version of Seeing AI now for about a year, and I can say with conviction that it has become indispensable to honing my own individuality.”

She says that while there are a number of other applications available in Japan for assisting people with visual impairments, they tend to be designed for a single, specific purpose, and don’t provide such a wide range of easy-to-use functions all in one package.

With Seeing AI she can carry out all sorts of everyday life by using her phone. Apart from reading, she can use it to check the brightness of lights in a room and for describing her surroundings and identifying people and objects as she moves about. Watch the following video:

The app’s Japanese audio readout is so speedy that someone not familiar with it might find it too fast to follow. “It’s difficult to keep up, isn’t it?” Akiko says with a laugh.

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“It is much faster than the speed of normal conversation and I’m okay with that because I’m blind and do everything through my ears. Things like reading or looking at something, that people can do in an instant, I have to listen and take in before I can act.

a bento
A bento that Akiko made for Ami, rice balls on the right and an array of morsels on the left.

“That is why I have gotten used to listening at high speed. The English-language version could not recognize Japanese text. When I used it to describe my surroundings and such like, I couldn’t listen at this speed, since I’m not a native English speaker and don’t have a good enough grasp of the language.”

The Japanese version has empowered Akiko to do much more by herself. For instance, she can now read notes from Ami’s kindergarten that tell her what Ami needs to take the next day. Before she had Seeing AI Akiko would have to scan each handout and use optical character recognition software to generate digital text that could be read out on her PC. Now it is just a matter of using her phone.

Being able to easily carry out tasks has given her more independence and confidence to do things she enjoys, such as cooking.

She uses Seeing AI’s “short text” function to read grocery labels, check use-by dates and identify ingredients. The app has a color recognition function that, for instance, can say whether a bell pepper is red, yellow or green.

Recognizing people, colors and much more

“I really enjoy making Ami’s bento these days with Seeing AI, I can think about the color of the ingredients as I prepare the lunchbox, so I might for example use a piece of yellow bell pepper to match the egg in tomorrow’s bento.”

Akiko’s phone contains a wealth of family photos, many of them are shots of her with her husband, Yoshimi, and Ami.

“I have set up Seeing AI’s person function to recognize Ami and my husband, so it can now pick out their faces in the photos I’ve taken.”

Mother, daughter and father
Akiko, Ami and husband Yoshimi at an amusement park.

In the past, Akiko had no way of knowing what each photo showed, but now she uses Seeing AI’s scene function to describe photos to her. And by pre-setting the app to recognize Ami and her husband, she can also go through photos showing a lot of people to find only those shots in which Ami or her husband appear.

“I always want my photos of Ami and the family close at hand. They’re also a record of her growth, so I do not want to delete any of them.”

Akiko says her use of the app continues to evolve at home and also at work in her role leading an organization that helps people with disabilities become more independent and attain a better quality of life.

“I see a disability as a unique individuality,” says Akiko. “And by honing that individuality (disability), I think that we can turn each rough stone into a glittering diamond. I’ve been using the Japanese language version of Seeing AI now for about a year, and I can say with conviction that it has become indispensable to honing my own individuality.”

Moter and young daughter
Akiko and Ami happily relaxing.

TOP IMAGE: Akiko Ishii and her daughter Ami use Seeing AI to read a picture book.



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