Helping the blind to ‘see’: New Google app reads text out loud, warns of obstacles

Ian Stoba, who grew up in West Vancouver, heads a team at Google whose work helps blind people see.


On the other end of the phone line in the Seattle area, Ian Stoba held his phone up to his computer screen and it began reading the page open on his computer screen to a listener in Vancouver.

“Just pointing it at the computer screen, it is able to read the text,” said Stoba, who grew up in West Vancouver.

It’s a Google app that is coming to Canada soon, one that alerts people with impaired vision of obstacles in their way and reads text to them.

What drew him to the accessibility team at Google?

Well, there’s the company’s corporate mission statement, for one: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Not everyone is as well-served as others are by existing technology, however. Like people who are blind, say, on the eve of Thursday’s World Sight Day.

“The idea is to try to use the data that exists in the world, find the information to make it useful to people,” Stoba said. “I was really interested in the intersection of technology and testability, and ways we could use some of the technology that was being developed at Google in ways that were genuinely helpful.”

Thus his phone reading The Vancouver Sun to a reporter inside the newspaper’s newsroom in East Van.

Google Accessibility’s app, Lookout, isn’t yet available in Canada but will be soon, the company says.

Among the app’s abilities is it can tell you what’s on the menu, if you’re at the correct gate at the airport, whether you’re about to walk into something (“chair at 12 o’clock”), just generally help people who are blind or have low sight identify objects in the world around them and navigate their way around all the written words that are out there.

“We call it environmental text,” Stoba said. “The amount of printed materials people interact with every day, for people who can’t see they don’t have access to that.”

One example the 53-year-old gives of environmental text is a person who was doing some work with his team and who used a guide dog.

“Guide dogs, like all dogs of course, need to go outside periodically, right? And so he’d taken his dog out and it was a nice day, he was sitting on a bench where the dog had helped guide him to. But what the dog couldn’t tell him was that there was a sign on the bench that said, ‘Wet paint.’ ”

The app, Stoba said, is a complement to guide dogs, white canes and echo location, and it’s pretty amazing, he said.

There are many winds in the road that brought him eventually to this project, but one thing that got him interested in helping people who are blind was watching a cousin, Barbara Morrison, translate Braille.

“I grew up hearing a lot about the work she had done, she was a multilingual Braille translator. She’d translate books, for example, from Japanese print to English Braille. One of the things that got me the most about the work she was doing … first of all, I thought that was fascinating while I was struggling with French lessons and she was translating all these different languages into Braille.

“But then she described the difficulty of things like illustrations or books that had cartoons in them and trying to explain visual humour in a way that was both concise and accurate enough for people to be able to follow along in Braille.”

It’s a bit, he added, like the area that Lookout operates in today, helping provide visual descriptions for things people with limited or no vision to perceive or interact with.

“It’s an interested thing as a sighted person to become a little more conscious of how much textual information you get from text that’s around us all the time,” he said. “I do joke about that paint sign, but it is a real thing. Just look around you and count how many signs or banners or bumper stickers or mail you get at home, it might have text that’s important or relevant to you, so you can really begin to see the value of something like this.”

This website uses cookies and asks your personal data to enhance your browsing experience.