LookTel Money Reader: The iPhone as a tool for the blind [video]

In January 2009, legendary singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder went to the Consumer Electronics Show and asked companies to consider the blind when building their wares. At the time, Wonder had the iPhone in mind — and Apple would answer the call. The company made its popular smartphone much more accessible to the blind in its subsequent software release by adding a great VoiceOver feature. According to recent rumors, the iPhone could soon become even more accessible thanks to the introduction of more robust voice controls. But developers are doing their part as well, and one in particular recently released an application that helps emphasize the kind of power smartphones have to make people’s lives easier.

Los Angeles-based LookTel has built an app called Money Reader, which has a single purpose: the app reads American paper currency and repeatedly speaks the value of each bill it sees. The goal of the app is to allow people with severe visual impairments or blindness to easily identify and count bills, and it succeeds. In its current state, the app can identify $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. It is not compatible with coins because current camera technology simply can’t capture enough contrast on them to provide a consistent and reliable experience.

The app is also smart. In low-light conditions, it will automatically activate the flash (if a flash is available). And the bill recognition was instant and flawless in our tests. Either side of a bill can be shown to the camera, and bills can be flat, wrinkled, spread out or folded — we’ve yet to find a way to stump Money Reader. Even with just a tiny corner of a bill in view of the camera, the app immediately repeats its value until the bill is removed from sight.

Money Reader is still in its infancy and we’re going to see some great new features added in the future. We spoke with the developer and one of our immediate questions was, what about foreign currency and international users? Interestingly, LookTel pointed out that it initially thought there would be no need to support foreign currencies because bills are often different sizes and many currencies have braille on the corners. But it turned out that wasn’t the case. “We’ve already had an influx of users asking for it, and explaining that even though foreign currency is technically accessible, it is still challenging to identify and that foreign users want LookTel Money Reader,” LookTel’s Eyal Binshtock told BGR. The company is also considering some other useful features, such as a vibration ID mode that will allow users to identify bills without audio feedback.

Money Reader is available immediately in the App Store for $1.99, which is a small price to pay for such a powerful utility. It is compatible with the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS and the fourth-generation iPod touch, as all are equipped with cameras.

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