Two New Apps Offer To Be The Eyes Of Blind iPhone Users

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Here in the UK we have a saying that goes roughly like this - you can wait ages for a bus, to then find that 2 come along at the same time.

Replace ‘a bus’ with ‘an app to help the blind identify objects and situations that they encounter in their daily lives’, and you have what is about to happen in the iTunes App Store.

In the past few days, the respective teams behind Specular and Be My Eyes have been seeking to raise awareness of their forthcoming iOS apps.

Both apps will enable blind and low vision users to capture images of what they have encountered and ask questions that they want answered. If both apps work as promised, an answer will arrive back within just a few seconds. The potential value is obvious.

Of course, this type of tool is nothing new to blind iOS users. As far back as May 2011, VizWiz was launched offering nearly the exact same functionality. In October 2012, this was joined in the App Store by TapTapSee, which offered a very similar service.

However, despite both apps still being available, it’s only TapTapSee which you are now likely to hear people using and recommending.

Consequently, TapTapSee is likely to be the app that both Specular and Be My Eyes will be trying to replace on your Home screen. However, equally challenging for the developers of the new apps, will be learning lessons from VizWiz.

Whereas TapTapSee has switched from a free service on launch to a subscription model, VizWiz has remained free to use. Because of this, it’s difficult not to be reminded of another old saying when you hear about the poor and misleading results which have caused most users to give up on VizWiz - “you get what you pay for”.

Considering the plaudits that it received and the way that it made you feel empowered and liberated when it first landed on our iPhones, it’s hard not to now look at VizWiz and feel a sense of sadness.

Compare this to TapTapSee, which seems to go from strength to strength - receiving regular updates, gaining new features, and only last month placing third in the Best Assistive iOS App of 2014 in the AppleVis Golden Apple Awards. Clearly its developers must be doing something right, and it makes you wonder what the two new apps will be able to offer that will have people reaching for them instead of TapTapSee.

According to their respective websites, both Specular and Be My Eyes will be using volunteers to answer the submitted questions. This would be an immediate distinction from TapTapSee, which uses a combination of automated object recognition technology and paid web workers.

At this point, we can only speculate as to what this distinction might mean in real terms for the end user. Ultimately, it’s likely to depend upon what checks and balances are in place to ensure the accuracy and value of the query results.

Whether there will be a cost for using each of these services is also unclear at this point. Specular currently appears to have no indication on it’s website of whether its service will be free or paid. Be My Eyes indicates that a subscription model and/or donations are being considered as possible sources of funding.

However, based upon the VizWiz experience, I suspect that many of us will be prepared to accept that a free service that delivers accurate and meaningful answers is unlikely to be realistic or tenable.

One notable difference that does appear to exist between the two new apps, is that Be My Eyes uses live video chat to communicate with the volunteer at the other end, whilst Specular will require you to record and submit your question. Each approach has its merits, and its also likely that some people will simply be more comfortable using one method over the other.

it’s certainly going to be interesting over the coming months to see what these new apps are able to bring to the table and how they will distinguish themselves both from each other and what is already available in the form of TapTapSee.

If you have suggestions for what that could be, I would love to hear them in the comments below.

Specular is currently inviting people to take part in a beta program due to start in 2 weeks time.

Be My Eyes should become available on 15 January.



Submitted by William on Monday, January 12, 2015


Be My Eyes is actually quite a different app from what I have read on their web site.

It does not use recorded questions. Instead, it establishes a live audio/video chat between the volunteer and the blind user. In my opinion that is something significantly different from what has been offered before.

Submitted by sockhopsinger on Monday, January 12, 2015

Might have to try these apps out in an adult dance facility. Haha. Sorry, but everyone needs a little humor from time to time.

Submitted by Doug on Thursday, January 15, 2015

David, so far in all my readings about this app, your contribution is the most balanced and constructive. I have used both TapTapSee and and Vizwiz. In both apps, there is no interaction between the helper or the user so that the best one can get is a basic description. I have always been a "happy wonderer"and have a need to know what is around me, like when I need to know if there are picnic tables or benches near bbuy which I could if need be, mark as a POI using the best GPS this world has to offer, BlindSquare of course. Maybe I'm in a shopping mall and though I might have learned the route to a particular store, I might like to know what other items (stores, kiosks, etc are near buy. The idea that BeMyEyes (damn, sounds like an American country song) allows direct two-way communication grants me the ability to ask for information I need, not what the provider thinks I need. Like you, I was blown away by viswiz and at the time, wrote about it, calling it the ghost in the machine before most folks suspected there needs to have been some form of human involvement and not simply electronic object recognition. Indeed, I do now have KNFB reader and have used several less effective OCR apps in the past. Even the quality of KNFB reader may not be able to read certain package labels, or take close to the rest of my ancient life to get it done (there is danger of dying of starvation here). With direct human contact, BeMyEyes seems the best bet; there may not be easily readable print but for example, a can of tomatoes may have a picture of that fruit (tomato is indeed a fruit.) Not sure that the recording of a message as will be offered by specular will allow the same useful two-way interaction. The only concern some folks might have is that there phone number, if that is what is used in these new apps, may go onto the phone of the responding helper. As for me, that is not an issue; if I don't want to have a party call me, I simply block there number. I've spoiled the fun of a lot of telephone marketers (and sometimes mine as well) by blocking them out, tsk tsk!