Microsoft's Seeing AI App Describes the World to Blind Users

Microsoft launches Seeing AI, a mobile app for the visually impaired, and announces new artificial intelligence initiatives to help bring the technology further into the mainstream.

artificial intelligence

Microsoft's efforts to democratize artificial intelligence (AI) continued this week with the release of Seeing AI, a free mobile app for the blind or visually impaired that uses audio to describes the world around its users. Available now for Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), the app enables users to point their cameras and hear descriptions of the people, objects and text that appear before them.

The AI-assisted app uses a variety of technologies that the company has been employing in its own products and commercializing as part of its Cognitive Services portfolio.

For example, Seeing AI not only detects people, but can also provide audio descriptions that account for a person's approximate age, emotional state and facial features. Microsoft offers similar functionality to third-party app developers via Cognitive Services, a collection of APIs (application programming interfaces) powered by the company's Azure cloud-computing platform.

Additionally, Seeing AI can help users take in a scene, have snippets of text read aloud and identify products by their barcodes. With text recognition and audio guidance capabilities, the app can also help users with some paperwork. And soon, Microsoft plans to update the app with a currency-identification feature that reads the dominations of bills placed in front of a device's camera.

More information on Seeing AI, along with a handful of video demos, is available here.

Seeing AI's release was announced on July 12 during an AI event hosted by Microsoft in London commemorating the 20th anniversary of the company's research lab in Cambridge, England. The software giant also used the gathering to announce its new Ethical Design Guide for AI, which will be used by Microsoft developers to help make AI technologies more accessible and inclusive, along with the formation of a research and incubation hub called Microsoft Research AI. The new lab, located in the company's Redmond, Wash. headquarters, will be home to over 100 AI scientists.

The company also announced a partnership with Max Welling, a machine reading expert from the University of Amsterdam. Machine reading combines deep learning and natural language processing into systems that can read text and answer questions pertaining to it. Among its many potential uses, Microsoft envisions that doctors will someday use the technology to quickly find information that is otherwise buried in medical books and journals.

Microsoft also using AI to help tackle climate change and other environmental challenges with its new AI for Earth program.

"Microsoft will offer access to cloud and AI computing resources, technology trainings and lighthouse projects – a $2 million commitment in this next fiscal year," explained Brad Smith, president and Chief Legal Officer at Microsoft, in a blog post today. "And to lead this work, we've named Lucas Joppa, longtime Microsoft Research lead on computational ecology, to the role of chief environmental scientist."

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the Internet.com network of...