Microsoft app helps blind people ‘see’ the world with AI

Microsoft has launched an iPhone app designed to help blind and partially-sighted people better navigate the world. The app, Seeing AI, uses ‘computer vision’ to narrate the user’s surroundings, read text, describe scenes and even identify friends’ facial cues.

The project has been in the works since September 2016; in March this year, Microsoft demonstrated a prototype of the app for the first time. It uses neural networks, similar to the technology found in self-driving cars, to identify its environment and speak its observations out loud.

Point your phone camera at a friend and it’ll tell you who they are. Aim it toward a short piece of text such as a name badge or room number and it’ll speak it instantly — a marked step up from the optical character recognition (OCR) technology of yore. Plus, it guides the user into capturing the object in question correctly, telling them to move the camera left or right to get the target in shot.

The app also recognizes currency, identifies products via their barcodes and, through an experimental feature, can describe entire scenes, such as a man walking a dog or food cooking on a stove. Basic tasks can be carried out directly within the app, without the need for an internet connection. It’s currently available to download for free in the US on iOS, but there’s no indication when it’ll come to other platforms or countries.

In a blog post by Harry Shum, executive vice president of Microsoft’s AI and research group, the company explains that Seeing AI is “just the beginning” for this kind of AI application. Machine learning, perception and natural language processing have evolved over time into separate fields of research, it says, but “we believe AI will be even more helpful when we can create tools that combine those functions.”

Source: Microsoft

Engadget RSS Feed

iPod marks its 15th birthday in a changed world

If you’re a gadget fan of a certain age (cough), you’re about to feel ancient: Apple’s iPod just turned 15 years old. Steve Jobs unveiled the first version of the media player at an event on Apple’s campus on October 23rd, 2001. To say that it had a wild ride after that would be an understatement. Many credit the iPod as the device that took Apple from niche PC maker to one of the largest companies on the planet, only to fade away as smartphones took over. But how did it get to where it is now? And is there any room left for the iPod 15 years later? Let’s take a quick look back at how the iPod has evolved through the years.

We like to think of the iPod’s 2001 introduction as a watershed moment these days, but at the time it left many scratching their heads. This was a risky side project for a company that had been on the brink of oblivion just a few years earlier, and the number of caveats seemed to be a mile long. Mac-only, a $ 399 price and ‘just’ 5GB of storage? Many didn’t expect it to sell well… and for the first couple of years, it didn’t. While the iPod found an audience among the faithful, those steep initial requirements ruled out both Windows users (even the 2002 model’s Windows support was a kludge) and many casual Mac listeners. Competitors like Creative and Rio had little to fear at first. Still, it was a glimpse at a future where you could quickly and easily sync your whole music collection in a device that fits in your pocket. Existing MP3 players like the Creative Nomad series or Rio’s PMP300 tended to be huge, slow or both, with software that made syncing a challenge.

But then something happened. In 2003, Apple not only released an iPod built with Windows users in mind, but launched both iTunes for Windows and the iTunes Music Store. It was as if a puzzle had been solved. Suddenly, most computer users could buy whatever songs they liked, sync them with an iPod, and start listening within a few minutes — no CD ripping or dodgy peer-to-peer sites required. It’s easy to complain about how unwieldy iTunes can be today, but it was a minor revelation at a time when most MP3 players had truly clunky sync processes and few (if any) ways to integrate with digital music services.

And for the next few years, it seemed as if Apple could do no wrong. iPod sales exploded, helped in no small part by falling prices and more accessible models. The iPod mini, shuffle and nano transformed the device from a near-luxury item into something virtually anyone could own. Apple grabbed such a dominant foothold in the market that no competitors posed more than a temporary threat. Even Microsoft’s Zune, with its iPod-like software integration and gobs of marketing money, couldn’t loosen Apple’s grip. The iPod’s white earbuds (and the matching silhouette ads) became iconic. With the help of iTunes, it ushered in an era where digital music was an everyday fact of life instead of a novelty. Podcasts owe both their success and very name to Apple’s pocket player — you wouldn’t be listening to Serial otherwise.

USA/

All technology has a finite lifespan, though, and Apple took the relatively radical step of hastening the iPod’s demise itself. When Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, he wasn’t shy about treating it as a do-it-all device that could help you avoid buying an iPod. Why get something separate when all your music can live on the phone you’re already carrying? The media player soldiered on for a while, in part thanks to the iPod touch (which satisfied the urge if you couldn’t buy an iPhone), but its days were clearly numbered. It’s telling that Apple unveiled the first iPod classic mere months after the iPhone arrived, indicating that the days of music-first hardware were coming to an end.

You may well know what happened next. Modern smartphones, including the iPhone, rendered dedicated players almost obsolete within just a few years. Apple increasingly shifted the iPod toward niche uses like fitness (the current iPod nano and shuffle are practically designed for runners) and away from the mainstream. Sales fell from nearly 55 million iPods per year in 2008 to a number so low that Apple no longer breaks them out in its fiscal results. To compound matters, streaming music has practically eliminated the need for a tiny jukebox. You don’t need capacious storage when you can listen to seemingly everything on services like Spotify or Apple Music. The death of the iPod classic in 2014 was less of a tragedy and more a sign of progress, when you think about it.

Earns Apple

As such, the iPod at 15 is really in its twilight years. There’s just not much room for it. Unless you need a mountain of offline music without paying a premium, you’re usually better off using your phone. It can access a wide array of services, and you don’t have to sync it with a computer. Even the iPod nano and shuffle are facing pressure from smartwatches, which can hold or stream enough music to last your whole run.

This isn’t to say that the iPod is a footnote in history, however. In hindsight, it was a stepping stone — a way of leaving CD players and record stores behind in favor of a world where any song you want is just a heartbeat away, wherever you are. You can also see it as ushering in the mobile revolution, since the iPod’s success helped drum up interest in the iPhone and other smartphones that weren’t just about checking email or making calls. As sad as it is to see the iPod treated like an afterthought today, there’s no question that its legacy will last well beyond the day the last units leave store shelves.

Image credits: Reuters/Mike Blake; AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Engadget RSS Feed