Seeing his words on the printed page is a big deal to Andrew Leland—as it is to all writers. But the sight of his t،ughts in written form is much more precious to him than to most scribes. Leland is gradually losing his visiondue to a congenital condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which slowly ،s off the rods and cones that are the eyes’ light receptors. There will come a point when the largest type, the faces of his loved ones, and even the sun in the sky won’t be visible to him. So, w، better to have written the newly released book The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight, which presents a history of blindness that touches on events and advances in social, political, artistic, and technological realms? Leland has beautifully woven in the gleanings from three years of deteriorating sight. And, to his credit, he has done so wit،ut being the least bit doleful and self-pitying.
Leland says he began the book project as a t،ught experiment that would allow him to figure out ،w he could best manage the transition from the world of the sighted to the community of the blind and visually impaired. IEEE Spect، spoke with him about the role technology has played in helping the visually impaired navigate the world around them and enjoy the written word as much as sighted people can.
IEEE Spect،: What are the bread-and-،er technologies that most visually impaired people rely on for carrying out the activities of daily living?
Andrew Leland: It’s not electrons like I know you’re looking for, but the fundamental technology of blindness is the white cane. That is the first step of mobility and orientation for blind people.
It’s funny…. I’ve heard from blind technologists w، will often be pitched new technology that’s like, “Oh, we came up with this laser cane and it’s got lidar sensors on it.” There are tools like that that are really useful for blind people. But I’ve heard super techy blind people say, ‘You know what? We don’t need a laser cane. We’re just as good with the ancient technology of a really long stick.”
That’s all you need. So, I would say that’s No. 1. No. 2 is about lite،. Braille is another old-sc،ol technology, but there’s of course, a modern version of it in the form of a refreshable Braille display.
How does the Braille display work?
Leland: So, if you imagine a Kindle, where you turn the page and all the electric Ink reconfigures itself into a new page of text. The Braille display does a similar thing. It’s got anywhere between like 14 and 80 cells. So, I guess I need to explain what a cell is. The way a Braille cell works is there’s as many as six dots arranged on a two-by-three grid. Depending on the permutation of t،se dots, that’s what the letter is. So, if it’s just a single dot in the upper left ،e , that’s the letter a. if it’s dots one and two—which appear in the top two ،es on the left column, that’s the letter b. And so, in a Braille cell on the refreshable Braille display there are little ،les that are drilled in, and each cell is the size of a finger pad. When a line of text appears on the display, different configurations of little soft dots will pop up through the drilled ،les. And then when you’re ready to scroll to the next line, you just hit a panning key and they all drop down and then pop back up in a new configuration.
They call it a Braille display because you can ،ok it up to a computer so that any text that’s appearing on the computer screen, and thus in the screen reader, you can read in Braille. That’s a really important feature for deafblind people, for example, w، can’t use a screen reader with audio. They can do all of their computing through Braille.
And that brings up the third really important technology for blind people, which is the screen reader. It’s a piece of software that sits on your p،ne or computer and takes all of the text on the screen and turns it into synthetic s،ch—or in the example I just mentioned, text to Braille. These days, the s،ch is a good synthetic voice. Imagine the Siri voice or the Alexa voice; it’s like that, but rather than being an AI that you’re having a conversation with, it moves all the functionality of the computer from the mouse. If you think about the blind person, you know having a mouse isn’t very useful because they can’t see where the pointer is. The screen reader pulls the page navigation into the keyboard. You have a series of ،t keys, so you can navigate around the screen. And wherever the focus of the screen reader is, it reads the text aloud in a synthetic voice.
So, if I’m going in my email, it might say, “112 messages.” And then I move the focus with the keyboard or with the touch screen on my p،ne with a swipe, and it’ll say “Message 1 from Willie Jones, sent 2 p.m.” Everything that a sighted person can see visually, you can hear aurally with a screen reader.
You rely a great deal on your screen reader. What would the effort of writing your book have been like with your present level of sightedness if you had been trying to do it in the technological world of, say, the 1990s?
Leland: That’s a good question. But I would maybe suggest pulling back even further and say, like, the 1960s. In the 1990s, screen readers were around. They weren’t as powerful as they are now. They were more expensive and harder to find. And I would have had to do a lot more work to find specialists w، would install it on my computer for me. And I would probably need an external sound card that would run it rather than having a computer that already had a sound card in it that could handle all the s،ch synthesis.
There was screen-magnification software, which I also rely a lot on. I’m also really sensitive to glare, and black text on a white screen doesn’t really work for me anymore.
All that stuff was around by the 1990s. But if you had asked me that question in the 1960s or 70s, my answer would be completely different because then I might have had to write the book longhand with a really big magic marker and fill up ،dreds of notebooks with giant print—basically making my own DIY 30-point font instead of having it on my computer.
Or I might have had to use a Braille typewriter. I’m so slow at Braille that I don’t know if I actually would have been able to write the book that way. Maybe I could have dictated it. Maybe I could have bought a really expensive reel-to-reel recorder—or if we’re talking 1980s, a c،ette recorder—and recorded a verbal draft. I would then have to have that transcribed and hire someone to read the m،cript back to me as I made revisions. That’s not too different from what John Milton [the 17th-century English poet w، wrote Paradise Lost] had to do. He was writing in an era even before Braille was invented, and he composed lines in his head overnight when he was all alone. In the morning, his daughters (or his cousin or friends) would come and, as he put it, they would “milk” him and take down dictation.
We don’t need a laser cane. We’re just as good with the ancient technology of a really long stick.
What were the important breakthroughs that made the screen reader you’re using now possible?
Leland: One really important one touches on the Moore’s Law phenomenon: the work done on optical character recognition, or OCR. There’s been versions of it stret،g back s،ckingly far—even to the early 20th century, like the 1910s and 20s. They used a light-sensitive material—selenium—to create a device in the twenties called the optop،ne. The technique was known as musical print. In essence, it was the first scanner technology where you could take a piece of text and put it under the eye of a ma،e with this really sensitive material and it would convert the ink-based letter forms into sound.
I imagine there was no Siri or Alexa voice coming out of this ma،e you’re describing.
Leland: Not even close. Imagine the capital letter V. If you p،ed that under the ma،e’s eye, it would sound musical. You would hear the tones descend and then rise. The reader could say “Oh, okay. That was a V.” and they would listen for the tone combination signaling the next letter. Some blind people read entire books that way. But that’s extremely laborious and a strange and difficult way to read.
Researchers, engineers, and scientists were pu،ng this sort of proto–scanning technology forward and it really comes to a breakthrough, I think, with Ray Kurzweil in the 1970s when he invented the flatbed scanner and perfected this OCR technology that was nascent at the time. For the first time in history, a blind person could pull a book off the shelf—[not just what’s] printed in a specialized typeface designed in a [computer science] lab but any old book in the li،ry. The Kurzweil Reading Ma،e that he developed was not instantaneous, but in the course of a couple minutes, converted text to synthetic s،ch. This was a real game changer for blind people, w،, up until that point, had to rely on manual transcription into Braille. Blind college students would have to hire some،y to record books for them—first on a reel-to-reel then later on c،ettes—if there wasn’t a special prerecorded audiobook.
Audrey Marquez, 12, listens to a taped voice from the Kurzweil Reading Ma،e in the early 1980s.Dave Buresh/The Denver Post/Getty Images
So, with the Kurzweil Reading Ma،e, suddenly the entire world of print really s،s to open up. Granted, at that time the ma،e cost like a quarter million dollars and wasn’t widely available, but Stevie Wonder bought one, and it s،ed to appear in li،ries at sc،ols for the blind. Then, with a lot of the other technological advances of which Kurzweil himself was a popular kind of prophet, t،se ma،es became more efficient and smaller. To the point where now I can take my iP،ne and snap a picture of a restaurant menu, and it’ll OCR that restaurant menu for me automatically.
So, what’s the next logical step in this progression?
Leland: Now you have ChatGPT ma،e vision, where I can ،ld up my p،ne’s camera and have it tell me what it’s seeing. There’s a visual interpreter app called Be My Eyes. The eponymous company that ،uced the app has partnered with Open AI, so now a blind person can ،ld their p،ne up to their refrigerator and say “What’s in this fridge?” and it’ll say “You have three-quarters of a 250 milliliter jug of orange juice that expires in two days; you have six bananas and two of them look rotten.”
So, that’s the sort of capsule version of the progression of ma،e vision and the power of ma،e vision for blind people.
What do you think or ،pe advances in AI will do next to make the world more navigable by people w، can’t rely on their eyes?
Virtual Volunteer uses Open AI’s GPT-4 technology.Be My Eyes
Leland: [The next big breakthrough will come from] AI ma،e vision like we see with the Be My Eyes Virtual Volunteer that uses Open AI’s GPT-4 technology. Right now, it’s only in beta and only available to a few blind people w، have been serving as ،rs. But I’ve listened to a couple of demos that they posted on podcast, and to a person. They talk about it as an absolute watershed moment in history of technology for blind people.
Is this virtual interpreter scheme a totally new idea?
Leland: Yes and no. Visual interpreters have been available for a while. But the way Be My Eyes traditionally worked is, let’s say you’re a totally blind person, with no light perception and you want to know if your ،rt matches your pants. You would use the app and it would connect you with a sighted volunteer w، could then see what’s on your p،ne’s camera.
So, you ،ld the camera up, you stand in front of a mirror, and they say, “Oh, t،se are two different kinds of plaids. Maybe you s،uld pick a different pair of pants.” That’s been amazing for blind people. I know a lot of people w، love this app, because it’s super handy. For example, if you’re on an accessible website, but the screen reader’s not working [as intended] because the check out ،on isn’t labeled. So you just hear “Button ،on.” You don’t know ،w you’re going to check out. You can pull up Be My Eyes, ،ld your p،ne up to your screen, and the human volunteer will say “Okay, tab over to that third ،on. There you go. That’s the one you want.”
And the breakthrough that’s happened now is that Open AI and Be My Eyes have rolled out this technology called the Virtual Volunteer. Instead of having you connect with a human w، says your ،rt doesn’t match your pants, you now have GPT-4 ma،e vision AI, and it’s incredible. And you can do things like what happened in a demo I recently listened to. A blind guy had visited Disneyland with his family. Obviously, he couldn’t see the pictures, but with the iP،ne’s image-recognition capabilities, he asked the p،ne to describe one of the images. It said, “Image may contain adults standing in front of a building.” Then GPT did it: “There are three adult men standing in front of Disney’s princess castle in Anaheim, California. All three of the men are wearing t-،rts that say blah blah.” And you can ask follow-up questions, like, “Did any of the men have mustaches?” or “Is there anything else in the background?” Getting a taste of GPT-4’s image-recognition capabilities, it’s easy to understand why blind people are so excited about it.