Episodes

Best Apps, Wearables and the Future of Blind Tech

The Be My Eyes Podcast
February 25, 2020

Podcasters Robin Christopherson (Dot to Dot) and Steven Scott (Double Tap Canada) join forces every week on RNIB Connect radio to talk tech. Both longtime tech early adopters and well-known voices of the UK’s visually impaired community, the two are opinionated, adamant and any other adjective you could conjure up about their devices, tools, gizmos and any other tool you could imagine for making sight-less life a little easier. We caught up with them this week to get the latest and greatest on best apps, smart devices, wearables and other exciting news about blind tech in 2020.

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Episode Transcript

Robin Christopherson:
Everyone who's using their phone one handed, or on a bumpy bus, or on bright sunny day, or in a noisy environment, or after they've had a few to drink, whatever it might be, they have exactly the same requirements of design of accessibility, in fact...

Will Butler:
Hey everyone, you're listening to the Be My Eyes podcast, I'm Will Butler, and today, I sat down to dive a little deeper into blind consumer tech, what are the must-have apps, wearables and exciting predictions for the future from some of the leading voices in blind tech in the UK? Robin Christopherson and Steven Scott are known far and wide for their podcasts, Tech Talk, Double Tap and Dot to Dot, where they talk everything blind tech every week. And they came onto the show today to talk about not only what are their favorite apps, and their must-have devices for living a productive and improved life as a blind person, but they also tossed in some really interesting predictions for the future. Things like self-driving cars and things that you might be able to predict, but also things like haptics and Braille, and how technology might improve our lives in some unexpected ways.

Will Butler:
If you've been enjoying all the tech talk and nerding out over accessibility over the last couple of episodes, a reminder to go listen to our new podcast, 13 Letters, where we don't just talk about the products that are changing people's daily lives, but we pull up a chair and chat with the people who actually designed them, all that at bemyeyes.com/podcasts. Robin Christopherson and Steven Scott, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. We've recruited you guys out from the UK, where are you at, Robin?

Robin Christopherson:
I'm in Warwick, which is smack in the middle of England.

Will Butler:
England, and Steven, where are you calling in from?

Steven Scott:
I am from Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland currently covered in snow, and no matter when we do this conversation, it will be covered in snow, I am sure of it.

Will Butler:
Even if this is released in mid June, you're going to be covered in snow?

Steven Scott:
Exactly.

Robin Christopherson:
Some parts of Scotland, that's for sure.

Will Butler:
Well, we're really excited to have you guys with us today, we're bringing Tech Talk to our audience today to give some predictions for 2020 and the future, and to really just talk about how far we've come in terms of consumer technology for people who are blind or low vision or visually impaired or however you identify. But maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourselves, what do you guys do? And what are your day jobs? And what shows can people normally hear you on, Robin?

Robin Christopherson:
Well, I mean, it's normally age before beauty but I feel compelled to say that the beautiful one should go first, the youngster, so, even.

Steven Scott:
Wow, youngster, I don't think I've been called that in a long time. How old are you Robin Christopherson?

Robin Christopherson:
[crosstalk] 50. Sound like double your age.

Steven Scott:
Okay, I'm a youngster then, yeah, okay. Right. Fine. Yes. So, I am a radio broadcaster, don't quite know how I have not been found out yet, but there we are. Yep, doing the radio log for a long time at will, and it's been a huge amount of fun starting out in commercial radio back in the early 2000s. About 1999, 2000, got my first paid job after leaving school and being told because I'm a visually impaired guy, that there was no chance at all I'd ever work in radio. In fact, get my typing skills up to speed because you're more than likely to be a secretary or a receptionist or an administrator or some kind of thing. But yeah, that didn't work out for me, I wasn't keen on that, so I got into radio. And yeah, it's been an absolute blast.

Steven Scott:
I started out doing commercial music radio, then I get into talk radio. I realized as soon as I opened the microphone, that I could just talk and people would essentially, be forced to listen. So, it was great, I loved it. And then, about 2007 I got the opportunity to visit the RNIB, the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK. They were looking for people to join them as they were launching their own radio station, and I thought, well, it was interesting because I had the background in radio and the background of visual impairments, so that would tie in quite nicely together.

Steven Scott:
And yeah, that was it, I started there, and as a result of that, I got in touch with people at Accessible Media Inc., in Canada, who were very keen to get me involved in their broadcasting. And so, I'm a very greedy person, Will, so I do both.

Will Butler:
You can hear Steven on Double Tap radio, which comes from AMI, in what? In radio form? In podcast form now? And also, there's a television show, right? TV show?

Steven Scott:
Yeah, yes. For some reason, someone thought that I would be good on television, I'm still struggling with that one, but yeah.

Will Butler:
Robin, tell us a little bit of what you do, when you and Steven aren't making trouble.

Robin Christopherson:
So, Steven works for the RNIB as he's mentioned, and I work for a UK pan-disability technology charity called AbilityNet, and we've been around since '96. And I was really, really fortunate to get an MBA from Prince William in 2017 for my services to digital inclusion. And that's basically, because I've just been around a long time, I think, and advocating for accessibility, or what we like to call digital inclusion these days, because accessibility has got too much baggage, we could talk about that later on. It's definitely something that benefits every user. I started the accessibility consultancy team at AbilityNet and we work with lots of world brands to make sure that their websites and apps are accessible.

Robin Christopherson:
Recently got into podcasting three or four years ago. Steven was very kind to invite me to co host the Tech Talk weekly podcast, as we've mentioned, just search for Tech Talk, two words. And three or so years ago, I started the Dot to Dot podcast, which is all things Echo, Echo skills, a different one every day. I want to say her name A-L-E-X-A, but I can't put this one right here, I call her the A lady, so that it doesn't trigger people's devices. So yeah, today, we're up to Episode 1111.

Will Butler:
So, are there that many skills?

Robin Christopherson:
There's over 50,000 in the US Skill Store, so we're never ever going to get there. There's about 38,000 in the UK Skill Store. So yeah, it'll either be a different third party skill and there are, let's say, thousands of them, or with something built in and there's additional functionality being added to the Echo all the time, and different models coming out and stuff like that. So, if you're in any way interested in the Echo, then Dot to Dot. So, yeah, a bit of podcasting, a bit of advocacy, public speaking, a lot of blog post writing, and that sort of thing around the empowering potential of technology, which is, I guess, what we're going to talk about today.

Will Butler:
So, you're both steeped in tech and particularly, tech that promotes inclusion for the blind and visually impaired. I want to do a little bit of sort of crystal ball gazing later on to look farther into the future. But first, maybe we could kind of dive into, what are you guys most excited about in the world of mainstream and assistive tech at the moment?

Robin Christopherson:
I would say for me personally, I am super excited about how far we've come in the main streaming of what used to be specialist technology. And you talked about mainstream and assistive technology, and there's a blurring of the distinction there. We used to have to carry a backpack of different gadgets and gizmos around, where Talking MP3 Player, where talking GPS device, talking note taker, a talking barcode scanner, could go on, and because there were specialist, each one cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds, would have its own charger, wouldn't necessarily represent cutting edge technology, because these are small companies, relatively speaking, that we're creating and updating them and that sort of thing.

Robin Christopherson:
And we never really occupied the mainstream tech world as much, apart from a computer with a specialist screen reader on it, for example, we pretty much had our own gadgets. And obviously, that's all changed now. And we could talk about how the smartphone is absolutely at the core of certainly, my tech world, and the various apps that we use that just make our lives super useful. Mainstream apps that everybody else is using, because hey, they're accessible, which is largely thanks to Apple's push on accessibility in their developer tools. You have to break accessibility when you create iOS apps, for example, you have to consciously go against the standard way of doing things and create custom controls and then, not follow the instructions about how to lay on accessibility afterwards. So, we've got a wealth of mainstream apps that we can use. And we've got all of these specialist ones that used to exist in these gadgets, these special devices, that are now just like an app for a few pence or that are free.

Will Butler:
So, for those people who might not remember, assistive tech basically, is referring to tech that's designed specifically, for blind people or for people with disabilities, correct?

Robin Christopherson:
Absolutely. I guess that's the AT.

Will Butler:
Whereas mainstream tech is referring to anything that is made for the general consumer be it an Amazon, Alexa, or an iPhone. So, all of these things, your GPSs, your MP3 players, all the things that you were talking about have gone from being in this heavy backpack to just being on one or two devices. That's exciting.

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah. I mean, if I'm going to a meeting I could literally, just do it all from my phone. I might decide to take a little Bluetooth keyboard if I'm going to be doing heavy note taking and that sort of thing. And yeah, I mean, I do actually choose to take a big MacBook as well, but I needn't. But yeah, it's all mainstream stuff. Looking around me now, I can't see anything specialist... Well, I can't see anything, maybe that's not a good [start laughing]. I'm trying to think of anything specialist that I own now and there's nothing. How about you Steven, have you still got specialist stuff around you?

Steven Scott:
You see, this is the problem, I do love the notion of specialist technology, I am one of those people. I listen to country music because no one else listens to it. So, I like things that are different and things that everyone else are not using. Yeah, I struggle with the specialist versus mainstream argument because I see places for it. I'm a huge fan of, for example, the Victor Reader Stream, which I think is a brilliant device. It's a very small device, it runs on a 1-9 phone style keypad. And what's funny about it is, it does so much considering it is really just a talking books player, but it can also tell you where you are. It's got GPS location in it, if you've got the Trek version. You can connect to your computer and download e-text to it, so I could listen to my daily newspapers if I want to. There's lots of things I can do with specialist tech and I like it.

Steven Scott:
But the problem is, I like it for a while and then I think, well, I could just do this on my phone. And that's the problem. And I think it's why I see a problem, it's a good thing. I mean, I think for me, it's really the consolidation, as what you were talking about Robin, it's the consolidation of technology over the past few years. And I think, Will, if we had to have this conversation five to 10 years ago, and you'd said to me, "Right, okay. So, Robin's taking smartphones as his idea of heaven in regards to where we are today, what's yours?" I'd be stumped because I'd be thinking what else is out there, really? The smartphone has everything. It has the apps and it has the capability and of course, it's a one stop shop, right?

Steven Scott:
But I think now, seeing the rise of artificial intelligence through the device we mentioned earlier, Lady A, the Amazon Echo, or the Google Home, these devices are really changing the way that blind and partially sighted people interact with the world around them, because the technology is so simple. All you need to be able to do is speak. And if you can speak and you can ask a question, then you are on your way to a wealth of answers about a whole wide range of things, that be it simple as the time. And actually, if you think about it, we've just said about smartphones, all the devices we can throw away because they're all inside our smartphones. Think about all the other devices we can throw away, you can throw away talking clocks and
talking thermometers, and all the other household stuff that would clutter the specialist tech world as well.

Steven Scott:
All that can go, because this device has that capability. I can dial up my favorite country music station and listen to it. Or I can find out what the weather is outside right now or the temperature in my house. And if it's too cold, I can change the temperature thanks to my connected app and my connected heating system. If I want to turn on my fan because it's getting a little bit too warm, I can do that because it's connected with a smart plug. I can even lower or raise my blinds, or if the lighting is annoying me, I can dim it thanks to smart bulbs. The connected nature of this world is incredible. And it's all through this smart device, the Amazon Echo which is what? $25. I mean it's incredible what you can do with such a device.

Steven Scott:
It is a screenless, buttonless computer; allright, okay, there are a couple of buttons on it, but let's forget those because you don't really need them. The point is, that you don't need to sit and tap a keyboard. You don't need a big monitor or a big box that you have got to plug in and then, get confused by it, or mostly will drop on the floor. You don't need any of that stuff. You just need a little hockey puck sized machine and you're interacting with the world around you. I mean, what's not to love?

Will Butler:
Yeah, I remember when Echo first came out, and you could see based on the app's directory of friends you could call via the Echo, you could see which of your friends also had the Echo, right? And I remember it was just all blind people. And I didn't have that many blind friends but it's like, just the blind contacts in my phone were the ones who had the Echo, because they caught on to it so quickly, fully a year before sighted folks were putting them in their houses. And especially now today when I have friends who tell me, "Oh my auntie lost her vision or is having some troubles with her vision. Or my grandmother, or my friend is really struggling and doesn't know how to just do simple things like get the news and read audio books and that sort of thing." I always point them towards those sorts of devices, because it's such a great entry point into building a friendly relationship with technology again.

Robin Christopherson:
I mean, I would want to Echo what both of you are saying there, I swear I did that.

Steven Scott:
[crosstalk] Nice.

Robin Christopherson:
Because-

Will Butler:
This podcast is fucked.

Steven Scott:
Yeah, I know.

Robin Christopherson:
It goes back to the specialist versus mainstream thing as well. So, Steven mentioned the voice... Not Voice Dream Reader, Victor Reader Stream, I think is right-

Steven Scott:
Victor Reader Stream, yeah.

Robin Christopherson:
And those other specialist devices, we could talk about the oCam, and there are a wealth of specialist devices that are still available and I hope will continue to be, because there will always be someone for whom having a smartphone at the center of the solution isn't viable. So, I think that, long may that continue. The people that grew up with technology age, I think that number may reduce over time. And as specialist devices are replaced by much simpler, cheaper ones that are, well, probably more powerful, actually, that are being used by everybody else for doing a function that is now a mainstream function. Talking to your computer, for example, used to be the domain of people that really needed to do a lot of training to make it understand what they're saying, because they had a really bad case of RSI, or a motor difficulty, or whatever it might be.

Robin Christopherson:
And speech output used to be the domain of blind people alone, and now it's super mainstream in the Echo devices or other virtual assistants. So, the simplicity, I think, is where we're headed and you've both alluded to that. So, with the desktop for blind people and people with the other range of disabilities, everything changed when that came along in the '80s because, it was able to be adopted. If you couldn't use a keyboard, you could talk to it. If you couldn't see the mouse on the screen, you could drive things from the keyboard, where you can get a big arrow pointer, or you can change the colors, all that sort of thing. We know how powerful technology has always been to level the playing field. But it was really complicated. The desktop is a complicated environment, there's a lot of training, it's not for everybody.

Robin Christopherson:
And then, when the smartphone came along, developers and people who were writing content for those much smaller screens had to impose a lot more discipline on what they were doing. They had to steal those experiences down into a much simpler interface, because you can only fit so much content on these smaller screens, and that made it really, really beneficial for us. So, not only have we got the power of the computer with us all the time, plus all these additional sensors, a camera, accelerometer, compass, GPS et cetera, we've also got a much simpler UI, so that really, really helped.

Robin Christopherson:
And then, as Steven said, you've now got AI kicking in to the extent that you can just use natural language commands, she can try and understand what you have asked for or said. And she'll come back with really nice sounding responses, actually, with the right information, she's been able to process what you say, and that's getting better and better all the time. Even over the three years that I've been doing the podcast, it's just come on in leaps and bounds.

Robin Christopherson:
So, this age of ambient computing that some people call it, where you just talk to the air, and you don't necessarily even know or care which device will hear you, where the answer will come from, and we can talk about the range of wearable devices that will actually be able to deliver that information to you on the go as well. Yeah, we're entering the third age of computing, the age of ambient computing, where AI is with you everywhere and just working really, really hard. And the threshold, the bar has been reduced still further to enable everyone regardless of how confident they are or what their impairment is, to be able to really take advantage of the full power that technology offers.

Will Butler:
So, for those who have just unboxed their Amazon Echo and they're interested in learning all the many, many skills that these devices can execute, you can go listen to, Dot to Dot, right?

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah.

Will Butler:
But what about for people who are just getting on to their smartphones for the first time, and maybe they're new to their visual impairment, or maybe they just have been resistant in the past? I mean, can you give me some examples of some of these apps? What are the really must have apps now for blind people that make their lives easier?

Steven Scott:
I don't know about you, Robin, but I think there's a kind of leading to, for me. One is about being at home, and something I use a lot at home or you can use outside as well, that Seeing AI, which I think is an amazing app. And what it does is it uses artificial intelligence to help you... I use it at home. I'll give you a good example I used it. Recently, I was traveling over to Canada, I do this fairly regularly, but I had to get my passport number. And I haven't done the proper blind thing yet, and that is, remember every single detail of my life in my head. So, I haven't remembered my passport number yet. I know that's a crime in the blind world, but I'm working on it. The other one is called Soundscape. And I've been using it a lot recently partnered with my Bose Frames, which I've got to say are just brilliant. You love them as well, Robin, I know you do.

Robin Christopherson:
Absolutely.

Steven Scott:
And what's wonderful about this is that the Bose Frames have their own augmented reality capabilities built into them. And without getting too deep into the woods here, essentially, Soundscape gives you exactly that, a soundscape of your environment. And if you use the app to look for a specific location, you can actually find that location, audibly. So, the information is coming to you in beeps and in tones to where the location of whatever it is you're trying to find is. So, if you're trying to find a cafe, or a bank, or a shop of some kind, you can actually use this app and it will navigate you in a way... It's not all navigation, you'd probably use something like Apple Maps.

Will Butler:
They're like audio beacons, right?

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah.

Steven Scott:
Yeah, that's right. So, it's essentially telling you where in the world, wherever you're going is, and it's using these beacons to get you there. You still have to think about Apple Maps or Google Maps and use that as well.

Will Butler:
And not walk into the street, also.

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah. [crosstalk].

Steven Scott:
And not walk in front of a bus-

Robin Christopherson:
Mobility skills.

Steven Scott:
That would be bad. Yes, exactly. You still have got to use all your skills, I mean, these are tools. I always say there are tools and a toolbox. And like any tool, it's not ever going to be used on its own or in isolation and that's the only tool you'll ever need. You need a multitude of them, and these are two. But it is a fantastic app, because they've put a lot of work into. And interestingly, both those apps come from Microsoft, and they work on Apple phones, which is obviously wonderful for us. I mean, there are so many more, and I know Robin, you'll probably pick out a lot of the different ones. But I think those two, for me, are probably my most used apps as a blind person.

Will Butler:
And both free apps as well, which is pretty cool that Microsoft has been able to develop those apps and then deploy them to blind users [crosstalk 00:23:48].

Steven Scott:
I'm a Scottish guy, right? So free is my favorite price. And that absolutely suits me. Yeah.

Will Butler:
So, Robin, why don't you tell us a little bit about some of your favorite apps at the moment?

Robin Christopherson:
I mean, again, assistive and mainstream kind of merging together, I was thinking about what I use my phone for most, and I think it's got to be email, it's got to be the calendar, all of these things are just quicker than the kind of desktop counterpart. Obviously, they're mainstream, I use Downcast. I'm obviously, a huge podcast consumer, and I use Lire, L-I-R-E, Lire, Lire, whatever it is, for RSS. And that plus, I would say, LinkedIn are the ways that I kind of stay up to speed with things kind of lead a professional work flow, et cetera. So, I mean, I know Steven, I'm sure, would have other ones to say in that department as well. But we shouldn't underestimate or under emphasize how important this object is to drive our workflows and just be able to be professional and do things very quickly.

Robin Christopherson:
But as far as assistive tech, I was thinking... Seeing AI definitely is in there. But when I thought about it, I actually use Be My Eyes more often, probably twice as much, because I know we talked about AI being really, really useful. And again, talking mainstream, it's built in much more often into mainstream apps like LinkedIn, like Facebook, a Google search, we'll all do automatic image recognition on images, to be able to give you an alt tag of what you might be looking at, or have a go. But AI definitely, isn't to the point where it's always going to be helpful. And the majority of Be My Eyes calls would start by the person saying, "My computer is not talking to me." So, I use that for that quite often.

Will Butler:
Yeah, people use it a lot for captures and those sorts of things. [crosstalk].

Robin Christopherson:
True, absolutely. And that's a really good example because captures by definition, are always going to be one step ahead of the latest advances in AI. By definition, they will always... If AI can now tell which of these are road signs, even though they're kind of half covered by trees in the pictures in a capture challenge, then as soon as they are able to do that, they'll make the road signs three quarters covered up by leaves or whatever it is, or a dark night or whatever. So, you'll never be able to do a capture challenge without a human help. So yeah, Be My Eyes is hugely useful. And that's a really good example of how you can have the power of technology with you all the time, wherever you are. So, those sort of things-

Steven Scott:
And can I just say actually, on that point of Be My Eyes, I mean, I didn't mention it there but I absolutely use it and I love it. It is a fantastic app. And I'll tell you one example where... Was actually quite an emotional thing for me. And that was, I was buying... It kind of came out of a funny moment, right? Because I was buying a card for my wife's birthday. And I did that thing that a lot of blind guys do, and blind people I guess do, where you say, "Right. I'll just do this, and I can do it myself. No problem, I'll be fine." And I picked up a card and got it home, signed it, I think a signed upside down, but let's just skip that part.

Steven Scott:
And then I presented it to her. And she said, "That's lovely, but it's not our anniversary." Right okay, well, the wrong card. So, next time, I used Be My Eyes, and not only was I able to get the right card, but the person spent the time reading the card, all of the words which matter, right? This matters.

Will Butler:
Right.

Steven Scott:
And you're having the ability to get that information in a way without the feeling of being a burden. Because the people who are volunteering are giving up their time to do this. That's what they're doing it for. That's why they've signed up. So, the fact that they're doing that means that you don't feel like a burden. And that's a big thing, even asking someone in a store sometimes can feel that way, because they've always got something else to do. And asking someone to, "Could you read these five cards for me?" "Right, okay." And they rush through it, you don't get any sense of anything. And the card that I end up choosing, I knew exactly what was on the card, things I never knew would have been on the front of a card before.

Steven Scott:
And when I presented her with the card, she knew that I had picked it specifically, for her because there were things on the card, she loves dogs, so it had pictures of dogs playing in whatever it was at the time. And it was a lovely moment, because I was able to know exactly the card she got and know what the words inside meant], and sent her the message I wanted to send. And that meant a lot, and I couldn't have done that without Be My Eyes.

Will Butler:
And Microsoft also, provide support through the Be My Eyes app. So, one of the things that... We love that Microsoft is forging ahead for these AI solutions, but also acknowledging the importance of human support when it's necessary.

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah. And I think that... So yeah, the disability answer desk being linked along with a bunch of other specialist support, which I think is brilliant, has a significant overlap with the paid for service that I redo, which is that they have extra knowledge compared to the average volunteer, they're willing to be on for however long it will take. And you might be able to trust that connection much more about confidential information, whether it's through your Google account or your Microsoft login, or whatever it might be, than potentially, the average volunteer. But I also want to kind of reinforce what Steven was saying there, that I never ever have any qualms about using Be My Eyes because, my wife who is a volunteer, her only complaint is that she doesn't get used enough, so-

Will Butler:
People are excited to get a call-

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah, absolutely. You make their day as well-

Will Butler:
It's a big moment [crosstalk].

Robin Christopherson:
So, absolutely. So, I actually see it as an opportunity. So, I never have any hesitation about firing it up. Should I wait another five minutes to see if the Windows has finished updates? Or should I just see... Get some actual visual information to see if it hasn't actually just died? So yeah, that is incredibly useful, and AI is a long way of looking at a complicated scene and being able to pick out the actual relevant bit of information that, that person needs to answer a specific question.

Will Butler:
Well, I didn't expect to talk about Be My Eyes this much, but one other thing I'll just say before we move on is, I like to encourage people to use Be My Eyes for fun. For tasks that are more whimsical or recreational, or things that... Like, hey, I'm watching this TV show, I'm going to hit pause, tell me what does Larry David really look like in this episode? Or what is this person wearing? Or what does this view out my window look like? I just want to get a improved set... I just want to enrich my life a little bit not necessarily, I'm troubleshooting something, can you get me out of a tight spot.

Steven Scott:
That's interesting.
Robin Christopherson:
You talk about the lack of AD, audio description, because it's so hit and miss, and it's really frustrating when you know it's available in one location or when it's on iTunes, but then when it comes to Netflix or whatever, then it's disappeared, whatever it might be, AD can be hugely frustrating. So yeah, I mean, that would be really good just about following the action. But there's this one kind of major plot pivot that you need to actually have a pair of eyes to be able to-

Will Butler:
Right.

Robin Christopherson:
... just pause it, rewind it, and then fire it up.

Steven Scott:
I suppose there's one which I can think of, a friend of mine told me where he had lost his artificial eye. And he used Be My Eyes to find it-

Will Butler:
I think I heard about this one. That adds a whole new meaning to Be My Eyes.

Steven Scott:
Find My Eyes, that's a new app for you right there-

Will Butler:
Find My Eyes, exactly.

Steven Scott:
You can have that.

Will Butler:
Guys, tell me about some other apps quickly that are good. I'm looking at a list that you guys sent over and you haven't mentioned four of them, things like Lazarillo, BlindSquare, Clue, VDR, VDS, I want to pick out some of these that you think are really important for blind and low vision folks to have on their phones.

Robin Christopherson:
So Steven mentioned, that Soundscape is really good, but if you don't just want the beacons, if you actually want turn by turn spoken instructions, then it points you at another app like Apple Maps or Google Maps, but also BlindSquare, for example. So, BlindSquare is really, really useful. Everybody needs that on their phone. It has much more information about POS, points of interest than your mainstream apps. And that's because it gets sourced by people that check in two different places with what used to be called... What was it called? Foursquare, but then it got spun off as Swarm, I think. But anyway, people can check in when they go to places and that database is really rich, and BlindSquare leverage is that. So, everybody needs to have BlindSquare, who's blind, to be able to get from A to B. Lazarillo is a really good additional one-

Steven Scott:
You love saying that.

Robin Christopherson:
... that gives you really useful information when you're on public transport. So, it knows every single bus stop, it knows every single train station, and a bit like Soundscape, you can put a beacon on it and tell it to count you down to your next bus stop. So, for any buses or trains that don't have spoken announcements, then Lazarillo, I think, it's definitely something you should have on your phone. VDR, Voice Dream Reader and Voice Dream scanner, which is new, Winston Chen. Everybody needs to have those on their phones as well-

Will Butler:
Absolutely.

Robin Christopherson:
Yeah, Voice Dream Reader is a one stop shop where you can chuck all of your documents, all of your media files, and it puts them into one list. And it has really accessible controls for dealing with that playback, whether it's the spoken text to speech voice, if it's a text document, or the spoken word, if it's a audio file or whatever. And Voice Dream Scanner is for scanning in documents using your phone's camera and that's super useful as well.

Steven Scott:
And I think for me, there's definitely one that I love and it's an app which... It's quite basic in some respects, but really good for me. I started learning Braille about a year and a half ago now. And for that reason, this app, Pocket Braille is an app that I absolutely adore, because it has got... If you're learning Braille, you're going through that process of learning, you sometimes just need that quick hit of information. What is that letter, again? What is the combination of dots for that? And what's the sign for this word? And it's got all of that in there. And it's created by a guy called Michael Doise, a blind guy who writes a number of apps, but that was one. And it's such a wonderful app to have on your phone. Again, it's really simple, but getting access to that information on your phone... And oftentimes, I use it with my Braille display to go and find the information I'm looking for. For whatever reason, I couldn't remember the question mark, so I had to go and look up, and it's got that information in there. It's absolutely wonderful.

Steven Scott:
I mean, there are so many apps, Will, that you could download. And it's not just apps related to... It's like you said, Robin, a lot of these apps like Facebook, Twitter... Oh, well, Twitterrific is the one I tend to go for, WhatsApp as well, very accessible. And I use voice message in that rather than texting out, because I just find it so much easier to communicate. A lot of the time is just that the blind people tend to do things in their own way. We just tend to find our own way of doing things. And of course, Audiobooks with Audible and all of that, I think, are just amazing apps-

Robin Christopherson:
Absolutely.

Steven Scott:
So much in one device.

Will Butler:
So, we've talked about the apps, we've talked quite a bit about some of the voice interfaces. Can you talk to me about wearables, and what is the role of things like the Apple Watch, or even your AirPods? Or is Amazon coming out with some wearables? The Bose frames you mentioned, we could talk a little about Google Glass. Are these things useful and valuable for blind and visually impaired people?

Robin Christopherson:
Absolutely.

Steven Scott:
Yes, yeah.

Robin Christopherson:
I mean, you mentioned a few there. I mean, I could not live without my AirPods, for example, just because I'm constantly listening to something. But being able to call up Siri on there, wherever your phone is in the house, I think it's really, really important. And I know that Steven has got the Amazon Echo Buds. And I think the A lady is definitely superior in her utility, hopefully, Siri we'll catch up one day. But I think wearables and AI in general, is really, really useful. And I definitely want to talk about Glass and the Bose Frames that we have, but just on the watch very briefly. Again, I don't know if it's indispensable, it certainly is for workouts for me, because I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to making sure that I always start a workout for everything that I do.

Robin Christopherson:
But just the complications on there, I have a number of the same watch face modular, but with different complications. And with a two finger swipe left or right, I move through those depending on whether it's nine to five, where I have the calendar complication in the middle, for example, and a number of other complications that are useful. In working hours, I switch to another one, on evenings, I switch to a different one at weekends, so that to me, I just love how... Talking about that simple distillation of the UI, the watch is even simpler still. And so, for super quick things, I really, really love that. But I'll let Steven talk and then we'll talk about things you wear on your face, which we definitely need to talk about.

Will Butler:
Yeah, yeah.

Steven Scott:
Yeah, I mean, I mentioned the Bose AR Frames obviously, that is one of those wearing on your face devices that I absolutely love-

Robin Christopherson:
Me too.

Steven Scott:
I mean ultimately, it's the ability to have voiceover on the iPhone available to me all of the time without having those AirPods. And I love my AirPods, I've got the AirPods Pro-

Will Butler:
Bose, they're obviously, the speaker and headphone manufacturer, made these glasses. There're sunglasses, they look like normal Bose Shades, but they have down casting speakers in the earpieces, I guess you call them, right?

Robin Christopherson:
In the arms.

Steven Scott:
Yeah, I thought they were going to be Bone Conduction, but they're not. I think they call it audio firing-

Will Butler:
Yeah, down firing fire-

Steven Scott:
... which essentially, fires the audio in your ear.

Will Butler:
Right.

Steven Scott:
I don't know how I feel about that phrase, if I'm honest. But it's okay. And what I will say is, the only criticism I have of it, frankly is that, could just be a bit louder. It's not so bad when you're in the house and when you're on a call, at home or in the office, is absolutely fine. And listening to things is absolutely fine. But when you go on a train, or you're in a busy environment, they are pretty quiet. That's the only criticism I have. And I think is because it is firing that sound into your ear. And if any other noise is getting in the way of that, well, that would be a challenge. That's something I don't know how they can fix, other than increasing the overall volume. But I think it's quite interesting.

Steven Scott:
But I will say this, I mentioned that the Echo Buds, they were also created by Bose, or at least in partnership with Bose and Amazon. And that was interesting. I think that's why the sound is good on them. But I've got to say on the Echo Buds, what I love about them is, Lady A. She is fast, she is responsive. I tried about 20 different times in different environments to get whether or not I could catch her out, so she wouldn't hear me. She could hear me clearly every single time. And yeah, I was really impressed. So wearables, my favorite, so the AirPods, absolutely. Bose AR frames, probably becoming my favorite Echo Buds. Yeah, they're good.

Robin Christopherson:
I think the only downside in the reviews to the Echo Buds is the size. They're very prominent. They're not as discreet as the AirPods, either the standard or the pro ones. The thing about the Bose AR Frames that I absolutely love is that they're so easy to put on and take off compared to... I know this sounds really sort of first world problem, but I absolutely love the AirPods but you have to take them out of their case, you have to put them in one ear at a time. And so, for quickly whipping them on and off if you're out and about listening to something, and if you're someone like me who can never not be listening to something, got a bit of a problem, then coming to a cab, it's tempting to just pause the music or whatever you're listening to, and keep them in as you cross the road. And that might be the last decision you ever make. Whereas with these, there's nothing over your ears at all.

Robin Christopherson:
So your hearing isn't in any way impaired, and those kinds of sound that get fired into your ears are always going to be subject to the downside of not being right stuffed into your ear canal. I don't think the volume is going to be ever that much higher and certainly over about 50%. If you're around the house in a quiet environment, everyone around you will be able to hear what you're listening to, as well say-

Steven Scott:
Yes, well that's the other problem.

Robin Christopherson:
In the house, they can get really loud for you, but they do for everybody else as well. But the compass that's in there, Steven mentioned before, is really, really cool to use with Soundscape, because as you turn your head, everything pans around as well. And the only thing that's missing is the camera. I absolutely can't wait for the next gen of these Bose AR Frames, or maybe... We know Apple, as I mentioned before, is working on Glass and there are rumors there. Or maybe the Google Glass that we now know is kind of got a second revival being marketed now, customers, consumers as well as business. All of those head mounted cameras are going to be absolutely brilliant with Be My Eyes, for example, or AI, just nice to have a choice.

Robin Christopherson:
So I'm really, really looking forward to that. That to me is kind of something I'd like to be able to say is a prediction for 2020. Whether it is or not, I don't know. And we have to obviously get over the hurdle of public revulsion for head mounted cameras, ever since... What was it Robert did a shot in the shower of him wearing Glass, I think that put the tin lid on the head mounted cameras for quite some time. Yeah, we need to hopefully get over that little bump and then, they're going to be really, really useful for us to use that camera that's looking wherever we're looking.

Will Butler:
So, we've recently learned that Google Glass is getting its second wind. It's now being marketed to consumers again. So, Glass is back and as you mentioned, some of these other big companies are working on similar solutions. What are the pros and cons you think of smart glasses, camera mounted solution for people who are blind in 2020.

Steven Scott:
Well, I think there's more pros than cons for me, for sure. And I think blind people might tell you that everywhere you go, because for me, it is about the ability to have something like Be My Eyes available to me at the touch of a button through Siri. That I can say, launch Be My Eyes and then suddenly, the person is able to see my world around me. It frees up a hand for a start, that I'm able to then use my glasses to be able to talk to someone and show them whatever it is, be it that birthday card again, or whatever it is I'm doing. And I think that's a massive plus point. I think the con for me might be battery life, actually. Will the batteries be able to put up with the amount of connections that we'll all be making as blind people, other folks might not use them in that way.

Steven Scott:
And I'm not sure how other people will use them. And that could be the other con in all of this. Because you see, the problem for me sometimes, is the sighted community gets in the way of this, they don't want this kind of thing. And rightly, there have been situations where parents have been targeted because they've been taking pictures of their children in a public place, and someone else gets annoyed because they think they might be taking a picture of them. So, the idea of walking around with a camera on your face might feel like we are invading people's privacy just a little step too far. I hope that's not the case. But it wouldn't surprise me if that was the headlines we started to see. And I wouldn't want that to be the thing that actually stopped the development of these devices. I think Robin is a bit more positive than I am.

Will Butler:
There is this sort of uncomfortable reality that the better our technology gets, the more invasive into our lives it gets, and the more it starts to become like this sort of big brother vision of the future, right? And I think a lot of the technology that makes blind people's lives more convenient, also does have trade offs when it comes to privacy.

Steven Scott:
You see, I don't care about this too much, because I think people give away so much of their privacy anyway. And you only need to look at Facebook, to see people posting pictures of themselves on holiday, when clearly that means their house is empty, and can be burgled at any given second, as a result, because you've just told them where you are. Or posting pictures of where you work and where you live and telling people where you are every second of the day, so people can build up that picture of what you do in your life. We're giving away a lot of our information already, people who seem too fussed by that.

Steven Scott:
So, I think it's a little bit cheeky to suggest that we get to a point where then those same people get upset because a blind person's got a camera on their face. I don't think that's necessarily the situation. I don't think people would be that concerned over that. I think it's the larger problem of people walking around with these on their face, what are you looking at? Is the question. What are you doing? What are you recording there? I don't know, it seems we're moving into that kind of world where privacy will eventually disappear. Anyway, I'm not overly comfortable with that as a human being if I'm honest, but that is the world we seem to be living in, though, and-

Will Butler:
I think that is the reality.

Steven Scott:
It's a big discussion.

Robin Christopherson:
I mean, the reality of privacy and security is that, that ship has sailed already. Like you say, if you use Facebook or even if you own a smartphone and have ever connected it to the internet, I think that ship has sailed, but that's very different from the public perception and to what extent that will dictate whether people will actually create a product that has a camera in it for those reasons, because the public is not ready for it. And that's certainly why the latest model of the Echo Show included a slider over the camera. So, for that very... Those qualms, the kind of squid squeamish feeling that people have when there're cameras pointed at them. So yeah, I mean, I'm just hoping that won't stop. Head mounted camera, ideally in glass, so certainly, it's looking wherever we're looking with us in 2020, so I'm just really, really hopeful.

Will Butler:
So, we've given a pretty good overview of where we're at in terms of apps, in terms of the rise of conversant interfaces and some of the more exciting new developments in wearable tech. What do you guys think when you look 10 years into the future, 20 years into the future, let's gaze into the crystal ball a little bit. What's the most exciting thing Robin?

Robin Christopherson:
Well, this week here in the UK, Nissan, they've got an electric car, the Nissan LEAF, and it was decked out with all of the autonomous driving capabilities, the Lidar, the radar, the cameras, et cetera, the supercomputer in the boot. And they did the longest, fully autonomous UK route from their Technical Center in Bedfordshire, which is just north of London, up to Sunderland, which is in the north east, where their manufacturing factory is. And that was 230 miles fully autonomously driven. There's absolutely no way you could fudge that by mapping out that route, ad infinitum to kind of show it at its best where actually, it couldn't kind of do that anywhere else.

Robin Christopherson:
We've definitely arrived at the point where autonomous vehicles exist, they are viable. Level 5, which is full autonomy is what we saw with that. That was a door to door routes that they took there, fully autonomously. Obviously, there were people on board just in case things went pear-shaped but it was absolutely fine. I know that there are loads of other projects, initiatives, even commercial, Lyft has done so many thousand fully autonomous rides in the States, there's stuff going on in Paris, other places around the UK, loads of cities around the US. So-

Will Butler:
So, you think blind people are going to be riding around in self-driving cars in the next 10 years.

Robin Christopherson:
Absolutely, for the very kind of significant reason that people who want to offer self-driving cars as a service, and I think car ownership is going to become quite an antiquated, illogical, counter intuitive notion in the years to come. Why would you own a massive bit of metal that is just taking up space somewhere, unless you want to start your own little autonomous taxi fleet of one, or however many you can afford. So, I think that, people that are creating these fleets of cars to help people... And they'll be in all different shapes and sizes, depending on how many people, what the purpose of the journey is, et cetera, et cetera, won't be able to make any assumptions about the level of responsibility of their passengers. Those passengers might be old, asleep, very young, very drunk, very bored on their phones, all of these things.

Robin Christopherson:
And just like Uber, the app for calling a ride needs to be extremely usable, because it's going to be required by people who'll have had a really good night on the town, and still need to be able to order an Uber successfully. These apps and all of the touch points where you interface with the services, both in calling the ride, in paying for it afterwards, in the in-car experience only to be fully inclusive, because everyone's going to be an extreme passenger, or you have to assume that they will be. They can take no ownership of this journey whatsoever. So, yeah, I think it's going to be inevitable. And we talked about the mainstreaming of technology for people with more significant needs. That's only going to be more and more mainstream going forward as people are going to be using things in much more extreme environments, just like at the moment accessibility, I mentioned right at the beginning, is now being for everyone.

Robin Christopherson:
And that's why we like to call it inclusive design because accessibility has got too much baggage as being just for disabled people, everyone who's using their phone one handed, or on a bumpy bus, or on bright sunny day, or in a noisy environment, or after they've had a few to drink, whatever it might be, they have exactly the same requirements of design of accessibility, in fact as people with a range of motor, cognitive vision, learning, hearing impairments as well. So, as we're using technology in much more extreme and varied ways going forward, because technology will be everywhere, it will become table stakes that those manufacturers will have to consider extreme usability, have to consider inclusive design, because people are going to be just using it in so many different ways. So, I'm really, really optimistic about the future.

Robin Christopherson:
And I think we've seen it over the last decade that things are becoming more and more inclusive. Obviously, we can point particular websites and apps what they need to be accessible to. But generally speaking, the trend will be towards technology being more and more inclusive, our needs being met more and more in the kind of mainstream. And we could also talk about how appliances are becoming more and more inclusive, mainstream white goods et cetera, connecting to the Echo, even though they might have inaccessible touch screen UIs for example, the fact that you can just talk to the A lady and get it to do the same thing, et cetera, et cetera, or an app on your phone. Choice is a good thing.

Will Butler:
Absolutely. Steven, what do you thinking about in the future? What are you excited for? Post 2020, more like 2025, what do you see coming down the pipe?

Steven Scott:
I'm going to surprise both of you by saying it's not going to be robots or smart glasses or driverless drones, or whatever it is. I think for blind people a resurgence, and I mean a resurgence in Braille, thanks to new technology. I've been running on this for a while. And I get laughed at a lot, not just for this, but for also the reason usually. But I do get laughed at this one because often people say to me, Braille is dead. Braille is finished, it's over.

Will Butler:
Well, the literacy rates are low right now.

Steven Scott:
Absolutely. There's a study of the NFB in the US just last year, which said that in the '60s, it was something like 60 or 70% of blind children were using and learning Braille, and now in the 2000s, it's down to 10%. The number of children who are leaving school, blind children that is, without literacy, essentially, expecting the world to just be delivered in audio is shocking. And I benefit from audio, I like audio, I like the way I work with JAWS, my screen reader, or VoiceOver in my Mac or in my iPhone, I love all that. But I have lost the ability to read. And I mean, understand language, and how its formed, how words are spelled out. I don't have that as much anymore. I'm aware that when I think of the words now, it's almost like I'm looking at something very old, it's faded, the letters are going away.

Steven Scott:
So, I can't remember the order and I can't remember how that word used to look. When I was younger and I had better vision, there was one thing that I had drummed into me, as a child, you have to be able to spell, you have to be able to write to properly, really important. So for me, Braille is an absolute key to that. And of course, that makes perfect sense. But one thing is, the resurgence that I believe is going to happen. And I think that's going to happen as a result of the haptic and the taptic technology that will enable our touchscreens, our iPads eventually, and other tablets, I guess, to actually have the ability to form shapes.

Steven Scott:
So, when the day comes when a shape can be formed on a screen that we can touch, to give us an idea or an example of an environment, or give some tactile experience to the image we're looking at, when that's the case for mainstream tech, that will enable, for example, a Kindle device, imagine just like an Amazon Kindle, but Braille popping up on the screen. We're seeing examples of this at the moment. There is one called Braille Hub which comes out of Europe.

Will Butler:
Right.

Steven Scott:
And I mean, that's an incredible piece of technology, that is very early days for, I feel, but that is where it's going, and that brings Braille back. Because at the moment, one of the big challenges with Braille is the cost of access of devices. We have seen lower cost devices hitting the market, which is good, but they need to be a lot lower for parents, for schools to be able to buy this. And I think with haptic and taptic technology, combined, we're going to see a resurgence.

Will Butler:
I love that prediction. I love that. I think that not only is Braille super important for literacy, but you're right in that this technology is going to enable it to come into the mainstream. I wonder, will we have a... What do you think? We'll there be some sighted people learning Braille?

Steven Scott:
Well, that would be amazing, wouldn't it? There are some sighted people that do learn Braille actually, in fact, I was in a class last year-

Robin Christopherson:
Friends and family, yeah.

Steven Scott:
... three people at the course were learning Braille, all of them were fully sighted. I couldn't make an understanding-

Will Butler:
I want to see one tech influencer, like Elon Musk come out and say, "Oh, you could be 10 times more productive if you learn Braille, because it allows you to do X Y Z without using your eyes."

Steven Scott:
For me, Braille is the ultimate silent mode. It really is. I don't get any noise, any interruptions. I can sit there and listen to the birds sing, or listen to music, and read in peace. And I need that in my life. It's mentally exhausting listening to everything all the time. And for me, that's where Braille comes in. So yeah, that's my prediction for 2025.

Robin Christopherson:
I certainly agree that haptics is super important. And we already see that with iOS 13. I've got it set so that as I roam my finger around my iPhone, everything taps under my finger, and I find that I can type more quickly because, as I move from key to key on the on screen keyboard, the tap behind to tell me that I have moved on to a new letter is processed by my brain more quickly than it having to go to my ears to say that I've moved from the W to the A, or something. So, I can actually type much more efficiently there. It's much more visceral and direct contact with my finger, and I'm sure that, like you say, there is technology out there, whether it's kind of picto electric that is sort of stimulating the nerve endings in your fingers, that make you feel like there's actual raised up things underneath your finger, even though it's a smooth sheet of glass. I think it's really, really important.

Robin Christopherson:
And to the point about, to what extent will these kind of skills become mainstream? There was a brilliant story about this chap, Felix Baumgartner, who sponsored by Red Bull, he decided to try and break two world records of jumping out of a balloon on the edge of space. So, they floated this balloon up to the edge of space 25 miles up, he had oxygen and helmet and everything. And he was going for two world records, the longest free fall. He was going to open his parachute at the last minute. And the highest free fall as well. So, as soon as he jumped off the platform, he got the highest free fall record because he was right on the edge of space. But his fancy, schmancy, heads-up display inside his helmet, he had all of these talking about Google Glass and stuff, he had all of these instrumentations on the inside of his visor. And he had accelerometer, altimeter, speedo, that sort of thing.

Robin Christopherson:
And because of, I don't know, the coldness of the atmosphere, or how he was heavy breathing, which I don't blame him at all, if I'm jumping off, I think I'd breathe heavily as well. It misted up, it steamed up, and he couldn't see any of his instrumentation at all, this fancy herd was just completely useless. And as a result, he was plummeting to Earth completely blind, and he had no idea when he was going to hit and go splat. So, time probably didn't mean much to him at that point, so he ended up pulling the cord much sooner than he would have done, which I don't blame him again at all, because you don't want to leave it too late, that's for sure.

Robin Christopherson:
So, something as simple as a haptic feedback, buzzing him at, I don't know, every thousand feet or having a super big buzz to tell him that, you've got a... Counting down to when he has to pull the cord or whatever. Would not only have meant that he would have got the second world record as well, but actually could have meant the difference between life and death.

Will Butler:
Yeah, a little bit of inclusive design, could have gone a long way there, right?

Robin Christopherson:
Exactly-

Will Butler:
Right.

Robin Christopherson:
Inclusive design. So, Apple and other smartphone manufacturers have definitely seen the importance of haptics, every single hardware that comes out has got an improved haptic engine, et cetera. It now feels like it's tapping under your finger right across the display, whereas before it used to be in... Just wherever that little thing was in one corner. So yeah, I think we're definitely seeing an acknowledgement that there needs to be a number of different channels of information, and depending on what disability you've got, you'll take advantage for those more or less than the average person, but yeah, that could have been life or death for Felix there.

Will Butler:
Wow. That's incredible. Well, guys, we could talk about all this stuff, I'm sure, for several hours more. But if folks want to hear more from both of you, and each of you separately, tell us where they can go, Robin.
Robin Christopherson:
So our website for AbilityNet is www.abilitynet... That's all one word .org.uk, all things Technology and Disability there. If you want to follow my personal podcast on the Echo, a new skill every day in much less than five minutes. It's also available as a flash briefing, then just search for Dot to Dot, that's three words normal spelling. And I'll let Steven talk about the Tech Talk podcast which I am very fortunate to co-host with Steven.

Steven Scott:
Yeah, we have such fun with that. But more importantly, I think, Will, we actually do make a difference, which is kind of what I love about it. I don't mean to get all emotional about it, but it is, it makes a difference to people's lives, it makes a difference to my life. We did a feature recently on something, and we were talking about the BlindShell mobile phone. And I mentioned a feature about dictation on it, and can you dictate into this phone? Is it possible? And I got an email explaining exactly how to do it from a listener. And I just love that connection we have, I just absolutely adore that. That we just have a conversation every week and people feel that way.

Steven Scott:
If you want to listen to it, you can find it just by searching on your podcatcher app, you can find it by searching for RNIB, Tech Talk. That's RNIB, Tech Talk. Or you can listen on RNIB Connect Radio, the show goes out at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Greenwich Mean Time in the UK. And it's also podcast at exactly the same time, so you can check out there. If you want to know more about my Canadian affair, then you can search for Double Tap Canada, that's the radio show, and you can get Double Tap TV as well. All of that found through the AMI website, ami.ca. But if you want everything Double Tap in one easy to find fully accessible place, we're very proud of our website, it's doubletap.online, simple as that. Doubletap.online, you get everything you want to know about technology in the place where blind people talk tech.

Will Butler:
Thank you guys so much for joining us today, it's been a real pleasure.

Robin Christopherson:
Thanks Will.

Steven Scott:
Thank you.

Will Butler:
Thanks for listening everyone. Check back in two weeks for another episode of the Be My Eyes podcast. For your tech fix, go check out 13 Letters. There's new interviews with all the leaders from the accessibility world every week. Email us at mystory@bemyeyes.com, we want to hear from you.