Voice activation has mostly been a gimmick to the average user: it was something that you got frustrated over after asking your phone 10 times in a row to call your mum only to have it end up calling your ex Molly.
However, today’s assistive technology is advancing rapidly with every new smartphone edition. While it’s still fun to annoy Siri by asking her to divide zero by zero, there are also new applications emerging that are trying to replace our own eyes.
Aipoly is an assistive technology that allows smartphones to recognise objects as if they were a seeing eye. It speaks out loud to help blind people identify the world around them.
Co-founder Alberto Rizzoli explained that the user experience is similar to opening a camera and taking a picture with your phone.
“When you point the the phone at an object the voice is activated in real-time speed. It’s a very similar experience to when you use your camera and you see face recognition, however it helps the visually impaired to understand objects and their characteristics,” he said.
With Aipoly, the user would barely need to touch their phone anymore, which of course comes as a huge help to those who are visually impaired.
“We started with the assistive technology targeted at the blind because there’s 285 million visually impaired people in the world,” Rizzoli said.
“There’s 235,000 [blind people] in Australia alone and with each one there are costs upwards of $6,000 a year just for their care and assistance.”
Born out of Singularity University in California, a part university, part think tank, part startup incubator, Rizzoli and his team recognised that imagery recognition would be a great way to help the blind.
Aipoly was cofounded by Alberto Rizzoli, Marita Cheng and Simon Edwardsson, who have backgrounds in business, robotics and artificial intelligence. They partnered with visual software designers, TeraDeep who have helped them take Aipoly to the next level.
Both Rizzoli and Cheng have some familiarity with the visually impaired. Rizzoli’s close family friend was blind at the age of 30, so he grew up understanding how people can lose their willingness to explore the world.
“I guided this person through my country house in Tuscany and described to them the surrounding that we were in. I would tell him that there were plants on the right, a statue to the left and realised that the world for a blind person can become a scary place.”
On the other side, Cheng worked as an entrepreneur in the disability space for almost three years and then volunteered at Guide Dogs Australia for seven years. Rizzoli said both he and Cheng saw an opportunity to make millions of lives easier.
“I thought immediately when I saw these image recognition algorithms and description algorithms that they could be a narrator for my blind friend,” Rizzoli said.
Aipoly received huge success at Singularity University by becoming both the class and judges favourite at various pitching events, success that has been replicated in Australia, with Aipoly chosen to pitch at this year’s Tech23 event.
“The closing ceremony for the year had a standing ovation and people really enjoyed our pitch and our work,” Rizzoli said of the California experience.
Initially Aipoly was channelled through the internet as a powerful piece of hardware but today they have allowed the app to work entirely on a smart phone’s chip.
With the rise of image and voice recognition technology, companies are constantly updating their applications to simplify the user experience. In September Apple released iOS 9 which improved upon VoiceOver accessibility. This allowed users to control more commands through voice over. Intuit is also working in the space, collaborating with non-profit My Blind Spot and QuickBooks to create content accessible to the blind through screen readers that convert tactile commands into voice.
This assistive technology has helped to transform smartphones into assistive devices that can replace a blind person’s sense of reality.
Touch screen technology has played a major difference in how users interact with their phones and has paved the way for startups like Aipoly to develop assistive technology systems that aid blind people in their smartphone navigation.
Initially the response to Aipoly was sceptical as there are already these assistive technologies on the market.
“It’s either ‘We don’t need this’ or ‘People pitch this to us everyday but they don’t seem to work’ and then when they try it, they’re really excited,” Rizzoli said.
Aipoly is not just a simple voiceover command, but aims to reignite the blind person’s spark for exploration.
“We’ve had people who start pointing their phones at paintings in their offices and finally find out what’s on these paintings or who look for different items or for illustrations on books through their phone.”
Aipoly is still a fairly recent project, beginning in July of this year with a planned launch date for December. Rizzoli said that the company is currently bootstrapped and they would like to first launch their app to prove the validity of their project.
Rizzoli currently wants to give Aipoly away for free by spending as little as possible on distribution. He is looking for support from organisations with the visually impaired and other interest groups who would be helpful in providing networks for distribution.
“We’ve been in touch with different blind organisations, with Vision Australia, Blind Centre and The Bocelli Foundation. We saw [Andrea] Bocelli, he tried the app and he really liked it, so he’s one of our first users and has been very helpful in giving us networks to distribute this solution,” Rizzoli said.
Rizzoli and his team are currently in Melbourne developing the technology and applying it to more users. A new development is the application of foreign languages where assistive technology could be used on smartphones or other reality systems to recognise objects and communicate them to users in other languages.
“You could point your phone to objects and learn a new language as the phone could name everything in a foreign language,” Rizzoli explained.
Rizzoli said Aipoly “isn’t exactly” looking to raise capital at the moment, with the focus on developing the technology further to fulfil its aim of not only assisting the blind in their use of their phones, but augmenting their interaction with reality. With someone like Bocelli calling themselves a fan, the startup looks to have a bright future ahead.
Image: Marita Cheng, Source: Provided