Although he lost his sight completely 33 years ago, Mexican Marcos Velázquez continues to compete in triathlons and give motivational talks. For the past year, he has also had an ally he never imagined: a telephone application that has become his digital eyes. Vhista, as the application has been named, recognizes objects in front of the person using the mobile phone when they are framed with the camera, identifies them aloud, and details how far away they are from the user.
"It opened my eyes"
"The application opened my eyes because now I can identify things that I didn't know were in front of me before," he says in an interview with Efe Velázquez while adding that he likes to use it to surprise people, especially his fellow triathletes, according to information from es-us.noticias.yahoo.com. He uses it both in sports, to find out what's around him when he rides his double bike accompanied by a guide, and in everyday situations, for example, at the airport to walk and not bump into people or while waiting for his wife on the street. The unexpected digital tool arrived at his home in Playa del Carmen, in the Riviera Maya, from a neighbor to the south, the Colombian software developer David Cruz Serrano, and with the mediation of the neighbor to the north, the American Apple, which provided Cruz with the Core ML technology on which Vhista is based.
The superpower of technology
The 20-year-old developer explains to Efe that he thought of using "the superpower" of technology to help others, realizing the widespread lack of empathy in today's societies, while observing passenger behavior on Bogotá's public transportation. The application, which is available in Spanish and English and can be downloaded for free for iOS through the App Store, recognizes objects such as televisions, animals, and plants, such as dogs and flowers, and also people, although always in a generic way and without identifying specific individuals by name. In addition to the physical distance, the user is also given a percentage of the confidence level that the identification is correct so that he can draw his own conclusions.
With or without internet
Vhista has two modes: a faster but slightly less precise one, which works without the internet and is fed by the database downloaded into the phone itself; and another one that requires a network connection, with more precision and which offers a panoramic description of all the objects in the photograph. The reason why the first mode is somewhat less precise is that the database it feeds is, by necessity, limited, since it has to be downloaded into the phone, otherwise, the file weight would be excessive. The current application weighs 100 MB.
"We would like to have a 20 GB application that works perfectly, but that is not feasible, and that is why we already have the online mode," says Cruz, who details that to reduce the weight of the file, priority was given to data libraries of everyday objects, instead of, for example, wild animals. The young entrepreneur, who was selected by Apple to attend the WWDC developers' conference in 2017, said that in the future the application will also have text recognition (it will be able to read a traffic sign, instructions for a medicine, etc.) and color recognition.
"People want freedom, they want to be able to do things for themselves," reflects Cruz, who agrees with Velázquez that the development of artificial intelligence has brought unprecedented progress to the quality of life of people with visual disabilities.