Monique Van den Abbeel was born with a congenital glaucoma that damaged his optic nerve. At four years old she became blind in her right eye and seven years later she lost vision of her left eye. Now, at the age of 43 years, this Belgian wants to use her smartphone to photograph all those things that produced –and continue to produce– joy as a means of “activating her memories and keeping them all,” she comments in her autobiography.
Obviously it is not an easy task, but it seems that it has not been impossible either.
Just over a year ago, Katrien De Graeve was asked to be one of the eight participants of Team Scheire, a Belgian television program in which a group of inventors tries to find technological solutions for people with special needs.
De Graeve, part of a team of experts in programming, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence from Microsoft, began working on a possible solution for Monique.
“We have a blind person who wants to take his own photographs without anyone’s help,” remembers De Graeve who told his team at the first meeting. “We look at each other and think something like: ‘OK, we understand the need, but we don’t even see the beginning of the solution. How do you help a person who is blind to take pictures?'”
But Monique was not defeated. This single mother has her own Instagram page, is the first person in Belgium to have a guide horse (yes, a guide horse called Dinky), lectures on the lives of blind people and does not even want to hear about dependency.
De Graeve contacted the Microsoft team that had designed the Seeing AI smartphone app, launched in 2017 and designed to help people with blind or poor vision, describe people, objects and texts in their lives daily.
From that little knot, they began to pull the skein. De Graeve’s team included additional machine learning features in the Seeing AI app so that the camera can recognize, in real time and offline, 1,500 objects, even distinguish vehicles such as “car” or “van”, and then dictate them so that Monique can then choose her own photographs
In addition, when the photographer takes horizontal photos, if they are not level, the phone vibrates to indicate it. It also alerts you if someone comes out with your eyes closed in a photo so you can repeat it. To all this we must add facial recognition functions: the camera recognizes your face and the lighting, for example, and lets you know if there is enough light to take the picture.
“My eyes will never see again,” Monique points out. “But somehow this offers me a new form of vision.”