Toronto Teen Uses App to Give Visually-impaired A New Look at the World
A Toronto teen is hoping to change the lives of visually impaired people around the world with a new app that can identify virtually any object with the quick tap of an iPhone or iPad.
Anmol Tukrel, a 17-year-old grade 12 student at Holy Trinity School in Richmond Hill, has always been fascinated with technology, particularly artificial intelligence. By the time he was in grade 7, he was already teaching himself how to code.
Growing up, Tukrel often travelled to Pune, India to visit his aunt who worked at the K. K. Eye Institute, a hospital dedicated to providing eye care for people who can’t afford it. That experience, combined with an internship at a startup that uses computer vision to make products for advertising firms, led him to the perfect idea for a Canada-Wide Science Fair project.
“I thought I could use computer vision for a more humanitarian use, and help visually impaired people,” he said.
Tukrel’s iPhone app, iDentifi, allows users to take a photo of virtually any object, and then describes that item in great detail back to the user. People can also take photos of text and have it read back to them, in one of 27 languages. Tukrel hopes it makes every day tasks — like picking out the can of pop you want — easier for people who are visually impaired.
Jason Fayre, the head of accessibility and assistive technology at the Canadian National Institute for the blind, tested out the app and, although there are similar apps on the market, gave it a rave review.
“I’m extremely impressed, especially that it was written by a grade 12 person,” he said. As a blind person himself, Fayre said iDentifi would make his life in easier when trying to identify things in the kitchen.
“If I don’t know what a particular can of something is, being able to take a picture and have that information read back to me in great detail is very useful,” he said.
It took Tukrel more than a year to develop the app, a process that involved months of painstaking research and enough code to fill a two-inch binder. He had initially planned on making his own convolutional neural network — computer speak for the data structure used to make the a program that recognizes objects. Eventually, he opted to integrate existing programs.
Tukrel casually speaks about computer vision, convolutional neural networks, and application program interfaces as though he were a university graduate of computer science – not an about-to-graduate high schooler.
“I’ve always liked technology, but as much as I like playing video games and using different apps, I wanted to be able to make them myself,” Tukrel said.
For Tukrel, the work doesn’t stop now that the science fair is over.
He has already met with various organizations to get feedback on the app, and plans on making tweaks to improve the user experience. So far, the app has been downloaded by several thousand people and is being used in 60 countries. And, it’s free, something Tukrel doesn’t plan on changing.
“I want people who are visually impaired to use it without thinking of the financial consequences of doing so,” he said. “We have such great technology and I think it’s important that everyone has access to it.”
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