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

The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.

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A Florida Brewery Created Edible Six-Pack Rings to Protect Marine Animals

For tiny scraps of plastic, six-pack rings can pose a huge threat to marine life. Small enough and ubiquitous enough that they’re easy to discard and forget about, the little plastic webs all too often make their way to the ocean, where animals can ingest or become trapped in them. In order to combat that problem, Florida-based Saltwater Brewery has created what they say is the world’s first fully biodegradable, compostable, edible six-pack rings.

The edible rings are made of barley and wheat and are, if not necessarily tasty, at least safe for animals and humans to ingest. Saltwater Brewery started packaging their beers with the edible six-pack rings in 2016. They charge slightly more for their brews to offset the cost of the rings' production. They hope that customers will be willing to pay a bit more for the environmentally friendly beers and are encouraging other companies to adopt the edible six-pack rings in order to lower manufacturing prices and save more animals.

As Saltwater Brewery president Chris Gove says in the video above: “We want to influence the big guys and kind of inspire them to also get on board.”

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