Akiko Ishii was referred to a job training program where she hoped to learn how to use a computer and work in an office. Instead, she was told she should probably study to be a massage therapist, that it would be a good profession for someone like her – someone who was blind. Ishii was having none of that.
Newly blind following a surgery at age 30, Ishii was determined to achieve her goals. That determination paid off with a job in the human relations department of an IT company in Tokyo. Now, she and her husband have a company that gives classes ranging from yoga to technology know-how for people who are blind or have low vision.
Ishii manages a very full life, and in recent years has been able to do it more easily with her “assistant,” as she calls Seeing AI, the free Microsoft app for iOS for those who are blind or who have low vision. The camera app uses “channels,” or modes, to read printed text, currency, and describe physical objects, product labels and colors, among other things. Now, coinciding with the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Microsoft is expanding Seeing AI support from English to another five languages: Dutch, French, German, Japanese and Spanish.
The additional language support will make Seeing AI, which uses artificial intelligence (AI), more accessible to the millions of people around the world who are blind, and the growing number of people with low vision.
“Now I will be able to read in Japanese. And I can also read my mail and other communication and correspondence on paper, so that will be super exciting,” says Ishii, who is eager to use Seeing AI’s Short Text channel, which speaks text as soon as it appears in front of the camera, and the Documents channel, which reads larger articles of printed text.
Previously, “If any communication was on paper, I would have to have somebody read it to me,” she says. “But now I’ll be able to read it myself.”
That’s exactly the kind of comment that means so much to Saqib Shaikh, Microsoft project lead and co-founder of Seeing AI, who is also blind.
“More than the technology itself, the thing that has really touched me is the way that people have taken the features of Seeing AI and incorporated it into their personal lives,” Shaikh says. “I get the most joy hearing from customers about how they’re using Seeing AI.”
That includes an email from a woman who used the app to read handwritten notes that her mother, now passed away, had written to her years ago. Or a father who used the Short Text feature at a zoo to read information on placards and signs to his young son.
“The father was feeling a bit down before because he couldn’t really interact at the zoo, tell his son what was around him,” Shaikh says. “But with Seeing AI, he was able to read the signs. And suddenly now, he could have that father-son moment of teaching his son where the monkeys live, and what they eat and all that kind of thing.”