Google Glass has a lot of potential as an assistive technology for the blind. But, there are currently a lot of barriers to making this operation of Glass financially and technologically viable. This article discusses the overall potential of Glass for the blind, the key apps under development, and the legal and logistical issues that must be navigated to make this “vision” a reality.
So, Google Glass. Its demise has been predicted. Its general usefulness has been derided. Its invasive and obnoxious presence in social situations has created the nickname “glasshole” and it’s not even finished yet. Instead, it is being sold to human guinea pigs who can gather useful data for wider commercial development. But, there are some bright spots for the project. It can be very helpful in professions that require high-level skill and two hands, like surgery. And it has numerous potential applications for people with disabilities. The question then is can Google Glass be updated and tailored to these very specific uses and manage to be commercially viable?
Google Glass for the Blind
One of the most interesting and potentially revolutionary users of Glass are the blind. The idea that Google Glass can be a companion that guides those with severely impaired vision through the world, describing items, scenes, and people is inspiring. If that potential becomes reality, it could be as universally life-changing as eyeglasses themselves. But, how soon and with what required investment this could happen is unclear. There are many apps under development, but they are mainly incomplete and the base hardware and software of Glass was not made for this operation.
Apps Under Development
The newly-renamed Open Shades (formerly Open Glass) project is developing apps and modifications to Glass to assist people with vision impairment. One of their apps, Question/Answer, allows users to take a picture and ask a question like “what is this?” The question is then sent out through crowdsourcing interfaces like Amazon MTurk or Twitter and answered by a sighted user. For their Memento app, sighted individuals record descriptions of scenes, which can then be played back when a blind or vision-impaired person “looks” at the same scene through Google Glass.
Another interesting app under development is Navatar (see YouTube video below), an indoor navigation system that uses a digital map of a building to guide a vision-impaired person to a specific location. However, the task of compiling enough digital maps of buildings to make the app truly useful is very daunting.
Current Android apps, such as those that identify items at a supermarket or currency denominations, as well as The vOICe for Android that features a color identifier, talking compass and locator, and face detector can potentially be used with Google Glass. All of these apps are loaded with potential, but more work needs to be done to make them as seamless as they need to be for universal usability.
There is one glaring legal barrier to the full potential of Glass for the blind: invasion of privacy. Facial recognition software that could allow a vision-impaired person to scan for their friend in a crowd, “read” the expression of a loved one, and greet a recent acquaintance they want to know better, could be dangerous if used for less benign purposes. Another barrier is the current set-up of Google Glass. A vision-impaired user would have to rely mainly on voice commands and dictated audio to operate Glass, but currently there are many included voice prompts that are solely visual, and Google Talkback is not fully synchronized with Glass.
It’s hard to say whether Google Glass will become what it has the potential to become, since there is not yet a widespread market clamoring for it. There are scientists and developers hoping for success, but the effort is likely to require a lot of resources. Viability depends on how quickly these resources can be mobilized and how much the individual efforts will work in concert with each other. The encouraging thought for the disabled is that these types of technologies are not limited to Google. The drive to create the possible often has the power to motivate technological breakthroughs. When this breakthrough will happen is anybody’s guess.