Whether you're shopping for a new shirt or attempting to diagnose why your talking computer has gone mute, as people with visual impairments we all need sighted help every now and then. Desktop scanners paired with OCR software signaled a major milestone in reading independence, and the mobile revolution has brought forth innovations ranging from easily accessible color and currency identifiers to GPS navigation apps and services offering accessible orientation and wayfinding.

One of the more recent milestones in mobile assistance is the use of phone and tablet cameras to help with item and situational identification. It started when many blind individuals began using their device cameras and video calling capabilities to seek remote assistance from friends and family. My wife, sister, and nephew have been invaluable remote assistants. More recently, however, the vision-impaired community has begun to seek help outside their social networks. We've discussed Google image recognition and the TapTapSee mobile app in previous issues of AccessWorld. We've also covered Be My Eyes and CrowdVis, both of which use iOS video to offer remote sighted assistance sessions.

Recently, a new player entered the accessibility arena. It's called BeSpecular and it is being previewed and made publicly available on July 1 at the American Council of the Blind's 2016 convention in Minneapolis. So by the time you read this, the app will be publically available as a free download for both iOS and Android.

How it Works

I have been a member of the BeSpecular beta testing group for several months, and as one would expect for an app aimed at people with visual impairments, the developers have gone to great lengths to make both their iOS and Android apps completely accessible. Unlike Be My Eyes and CrowdVis, however, the app does not rely on video to get the job done. BeSpecular uses the device camera to send still images to a worldwide network of volunteers. As I discuss below, there are advantages and disadvantages to using pictures instead of a live video connection, but first let's step through a sample BeSpecular session.

Using BeSpecular

When you first install and run the BeSpecular app, you are asked if you wish to register as a visually impaired or sighted user. I tested the app on my iPhone 6 and registered as a visually impaired user. Registration required only my name, email, and password selection. I could also enter optional biographic material, which I skipped for the time being.

You can choose to either "Take a picture" or "Upload picture from gallery." The latter option opens your photo library, which, as we will see later, can be quite a useful feature.

Double tap the "Take a picture" button and BeSpecular announces "Focusing, please hold still." Unfortunately, the app does not wait until you are actually holding the camera still to snap the photo. If you double tap the "Take a picture" button and wave the camera around, the shutter still snaps. BeSpecular does use auto-flash, and when sending a library photo it will advise when an image is too dark.

After a photo has been taken you are offered the option of snapping an additional picture to be sent with your assistance request. This is ideal when your question requires a multi-sided view of an object, or when, say, you don't know which side of the box actually contains the cooking instructions.

There are two ways to ask questions about the image you send. You can type your request, or you can record a message. To record a message, double tap and hold, begin speaking, and then release the tap when you are finished. WhatsApp users will be familiar with this process, but I found it a bit awkward. My muscle memory says double tap and start speaking, then double tap when you finish, as is done with normal dictation on my iPhone. Perhaps the developers could add this option? I did find it amusing one time when BeSpecular considered my question too brief. They suggested I explain in more detail what information I wished to ask about my image, and also to consider thanking the volunteer.

Once you've recorded your question you can choose to either send your request or cancel the session. BeSpecular uploads a high-resolution version of the image, so it will take a bit longer than other photo uploads. And unlike all of the other remote assistant sites we have evaluated here at AccessWorld, BeSpecular sends your requests to multiple volunteers at once. You will be notified how many volunteers are currently responding to your request. You can set up device notifications so you can check your email or listen to a podcast while you wait, although during the beta period responses usually arrived in less than a minute. After each reply you have the option to ask for further replies if the answer was incomplete, or to end your request.

Sighted volunteers can respond either with a typed message or audio recording. Unfortunately, due to privacy concerns, you cannot establish a one-to-one connection if the responder requires an additional photo or other clarification.

You can refer back to a history of your requests and responses, however, and though I was unable to test this feature, the official release version will allow users to save BeSpecular photos to the device's camera roll using a received text description for its name—a handy feature indeed.

Like any service that depends on volunteers, the number of responses and the speed of these responses varied throughout the beta cycle. At the conclusion of the beta test, BeSpecular had 1,500 registered members, 65 percent sighted and 35 percent with a visual impairment. Occasions when fewer than two volunteers replied to my requests were rare. Still, it remains to be seen if BeSpecular suffers the same growing pains as Be My Eyes, which experienced a number of server crashes as word of its release spread.

According to Stephanie Cowper, Co-founder of BeSpecular, "Our developer team has worked hard to build scalability in from the ground up."

According to Cowper, "specular" is a physics term. "It means 'reflection of light,'" she said, "which seemed appropriate for an app like ours." Cowper also notes that the dots for the braille letter "S" are basically a mirror reflection of themselves, adding with a laugh, "We added the 'Be' because BeSpecular rolls easier off the tongue."

Why Use BeSpecular

When asked what advantages the BeSpecular model might have over the video based options, Cowper grouped her responses into two categories: one for the volunteers and one for the users.

"Volunteers want to volunteer," she states. "Be My Eyes has so many volunteers compared to the number of sight-impaired users, any one sighted helper might go for up to a year without receiving a single request. When a request does come, he or she is going to feel they have to drop everything and offer assistance right away, which isn't always practical. Since we send requests to multiple volunteers at once, if someone isn't in a place where they can respond, they can rest assured someone else can offer assistance.

"For the vision-impaired, chances are the responses are going to come quicker. Also, you may only wish to know something simple, like whether the can of soup in your hands is chicken noodle or tomato. You may not wish to engage in a prolonged wait for a video session for this. Also, BeSpecular is unique in that we are accessible to the deaf-blind community."

One BeSpecular use case surprised Cowper and her team. "Many of our users are on Snapchat and WhatsApp. Instead of having to ask friends to explain an image, they started snapping screenshots and sending them from their photo library for BeSpecular volunteers to describe."

BeSpecular will begin life as a free, ad-supported app. "The ads will be tightly integrated into the app—no banners or popups," Cowper promises. "We will also be offering an ad-free subscription model." Pricing has not yet been determined, but Cowper says, "We are expecting it to be less than $20 per year for unlimited use."

Final BeSpeculations

During my beta test period I rarely needed to ask for an additional response, though often a second reply came through before I could tap the "Cancel" button. It remains to be seen how well the response speed and quality will hold up once non-beta volunteers begin to sign up. Be My Eyes was flooded with new volunteers as news coverage, including AccessWorld's, hit the wires. Will lightning strike twice? Or will remote sighted assistance be "yesterday's volunteer opportunity"? Myself, I'm hoping for lightning.

How to Get Started

Visit the BeSpecular website.

For iOS and Android download links.

You can also connect with the team via e-mail, Twitter (@Bespecular), and Facebook.

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Bill Holton
Article Topic
Mobile App Evaluations and Guides