An instant path to an online army

April 23, 2013

VizWiz (credit: University of Maryland Baltimore County)

VizWiz, a free iPhone app, gives real-time help to blind users, The New York Times reports.

VizWiz users take a photograph as best as they can — it may take several tries before the desired object is properly framed — and then record one question about it (“What is on the label of the can?”).

Besides needing help identifying food labels, they may want to know the denomination of paper currency, say, or whether a baby’s head shows signs of a rash.

The picture and the recorded question can be sent to several contractors at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to be answered for a tiny fee paid by the Rochester researchers. (More than one person can answer the same question, to ensure accuracy.)

It offers additional options, like free “friendsourcing” of the question to the user’s Facebook friends, Twitter followers or a particular e-mail correspondent.

So far, the service has answered about 60,000 questions from 6,000 users.

For a typical Mechanical Turk request, it may take a few minutes, hours or days before a worker picks up the request. VizWiz helps blind users achieve real-time help by going into action as soon they alert the service that they’re preparing to take a picture.

The crowd turns out to be a superior source of aid, compared with one’s social network, in the opinion of recently surveyed VizWiz users.

Another smartphone app developed at Rochester, called Scribe, helps the deaf and hearing-impaired. With the app, users send an audio stream to many workers who provide real-time transcription.