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This Smartphone App Aims to Help the Blind See

Your smartphone will never totally replace a fellow human being. But a new app seeks to function a bit like another set of eyes in the house, helping the visually impaired identify everyday items as they come into contact with them. 

BlindTool is an Android app that can recognize common objects and relay that information to the user through voice, and as a simple text-based message across the screen (for anyone who feels like trying it out). It was created by Joseph Paul Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who was inspired to create a tool for the visually impaired after working with a blind programmer.

BlindTool works through training and logic. While developing the app, Cohen used a database of around 1000 images to teach the neural network to identify objects like bananas, frying pans, and cups. Using that information, the app can make a guess about whether what's in front of the camera matches a object it already knows, vibrating when it's identified something. The application will only speak the name of an object when it's 30 percent sure of what it is, and the vibration becomes stronger around 90 percent.

The concept seems promising, but BlindTool is not without its quirks (it should be noted that the program is still in its beta stage). A large database with tens of thousands of images would have made the application slow and too large for a smartphone, so Cohen went for speed and efficiency over accuracy. He told FastCoDesign that the photos used to train the app were selected randomly, not geared toward what a user might need to identify on a day-to-day basis.

In a quick test of BlindTool around the mental_floss office, the identifications were hit-and-miss. Objects like keyboards and sunglasses were identified correctly the first time around, but others, like a digital watch and running shoes, took several passes. A toothbrush was never positively identified, and the app was confident that a wastebasket was a toilet seat.

Screenshots via BlindTool

Despite the kinks, BlindTool shows how technology like this may someday be harnessed to make everyday life for the visually impaired easier. It joins a handful of other apps designed to aid the blind, and while it might not be perfect, Cohen told FastCoDesign that he believes it still serves an important purpose: "If someone just wants to look around, and get the gist of what something looks like so they can add a whole other dimension of sight, experience of the world, maybe [BlindTool is technically] wrong, but ... I still think it gives a sense of independence, which is a big goal of doing this."

[h/t: FastCoDesign

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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