Technology TED Talks

How technology is changing blindness: 6 talks on how those who can’t see can drive cars, take photographs and more

When Ron McCallum was a child, he loved story time. But he was sad not to be able to read a book on his own. It was the 1940s, and McCallum was blind since birth. As his mom told him, “You can’t feel the pictures, and you can’t feel the print on the page.”

“Little did I know that I would be part of a technological revolution that would make that dream come true,” says McCallum, a labor law scholar, in this incredibly sweet talk given at TEDxSydney. “Computers have changed the lives of us all in this room and around the world, but I think they’ve changed the lives of we blind people more than any other group.”

In this talk, McCallum takes us on a tour of the people and technology that allowed him to read — from those who transcribed into braille to the maker of the first blind computer with speech synthesizer, to the inventor behind the Kurzweil reader that scans books and reads them aloud. It’s a fascinating look at something sighted people tend to take for granted.

McCallum certainly has a point — technological innovation has brought some incredible changes for the blind. Below, TED and TEDx talks on more innovations for those who can’t see, some available now and some in the works.

Dennis Hong: Making a car for blind drivers
Much ado has been made about Google’s self-driving car. But Dennis Hong’s creation is a little different — it’s a car which allows non-sighted drivers to get behind the wheel, determine their route and speed, and stay safe with non-visual interfaces. “It’s a vehicle where a blind person can make active decisions and drive,” explains Hong in this fascinating talk from TED2011.

Sumit Dagar: Smartphones for the visually impaired
Most smartphones have glass surfaces — not exactly great if you rely on touch for information. So TED Fellow Sumit Dagar is working on a prototype of a smartphone based on a braille reader. This phone, still in development, will use different surfaces to denote function and will display information via braille. It also allows for braille texting, and will even pull up tactile maps. Perhaps the coolest, though—this phone will be able to scan any text and convert it into braille. And convert photos into feelable outlines.

Bob Lee: How I teach photography to the blind
Photography doesn’t seem like a likely hobby for people with impaired sight. At TEDxSingapore, photojournalist Bob Lee shares how he blindfolded himself to figure out techniques for teaching a five-week photography course for the blind. The key: using sound and tactile cues, plus the auto-functions on today’s smart cameras.

Sheila Nirenberg: A prosthetic eye to treat blindness
Neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg is working on a technology not just to improve the everyday lives of those without sight — but to give them the ability to see, in the case that they should they want it. At TEDMED 2011, Nirenberg explains her creation — a prosthetic eye that captures images and sends them directly to the brain, by hooking into the optic nerve.

Anthony Dipin Vas: Haptic feedback shoes for the blind
In this incredible video — an ad rather than a TED Talk — a young man walks to school, a young woman strolls outdoors, and an old man navigates stairs. All three are blind. Rather than a cane or seeing eye dog, they are being guided by haptic feedback shoes. These shoes, called “La Chal” and created by TED Fellow Anthony Vipin Das, use GPS technology and vibrations to let their wearers know when to turn, lift their feet and stop to avoid a hazard. (Read a Q&A with Vipin Das on the TED Blog.)

Ewa Marcinek: Cinema for the blind
Ewa Marcinek has a fascinating vision — a movie theater where the blind, who rely on audio description to understand movies, and the sighted, who rely on visuals, can watch movies together without going mad. At TEDxWroclaw, Marcinek explains this unique challenge, and how her team has solved it.