Google Extends Lookout Accessibility App to All Android Devices, Adds Ability to Read Food Labels and Text
Google’s Lookout app can now identify packaged food and take snapshots of text to read aloud later to blind and visually impaired people. The new Food Label and Scan Document modes are part of a suite of improvements and augmentations to Lookout’s accessibility as Google extends the app to new Android devices around the world.
Lookout debuted two years ago at the Google I/O conference as an accessibility feature for Pixel smartphones. It provides ongoing audio descriptions of the environment around the user via the smartphone’s camera using directional cues so the user knows if there’s any furniture in their path, or a package on the doorstep, for instance. Google has been updating Lookout regularly since it launched, but the latest version is a complete revision of the app’s look and under-the-hood operation. A smaller change gives more space to the frame of the camera and moves the mode options to a discreet place at the bottom of the screen, but all of the shifts in the interface help Lookout connect with the TalkBack Android screen reader.
That’s where users can access the new Food Label and Scan Document options. Scan Document turns text on paper or a screen into a transcript to be read aloud. Lookout could already perform that function but now will add a step by taking a photo of the text at that moment to analyze and recite even when the user has moved from the area. Relatedly, the quick read function works to do the same even when there’s only a small amount of writing, like on an envelope. Food Label is a bigger leap but still grows out of the AI’s ability to analyze both objects and text, in this case, food packages. The AI offers vocal guidance to move the container into position, then tells the user what they were examining. Google’s test team for Lookout reported that people with little or no vision preferred the visual analysis over needing a barcode, however. The potential new customer base drawn by Lookout will have a lot more hardware options too as any Android device with enough space can now download Lookout, not just Pixel phones. And the update allows the AI to report what it sees in French, German, Italian, or Spanish in addition to English.
Google’s ongoing push to make Android more accessible takes many forms, but voice AI is a central part of the strategy. The Voice Access feature gained a visual cortex in the latest major upgrade to the operating system. That update followed Google’s unveiling of Action Blocks, a system for combining pre-set Google Assistant commands and shortcuts into a single button or voice command. Even beyond Android, Google frequently chooses to highlight its accessibility services in projects like voice cues in Google Maps directions and training voice assistants in Project Euphonia to understand those with speech impairments. U.S. Paralympian and TEDx speaker Garrison Redd recently partnered with Google to promote ways of using Google Assistant to improve the lives of people with disabilities and suggest new ideas. Google is not unique in improving accessibility features. Just this month, Amazon set up the Alexa Accessibility Hub, a digital home for all of its accessibility features and initiatives for the Alexa voice assistant. Some of Lookout’s abilities are replicated by Alexa, such as Show and Tell, which uses Echo smart displays, to identify food containers. The updated feel of Lookout and its extra features reflect Google’s interest in bringing its tech to the many millions of people who would benefit from this application of AI.
“To help people who are blind or low-vision complete these daily tasks faster and more easily, we’re introducing updates to Lookout on Android: new modes, a more accessible design, and expansion to even more Android devices,” Google explained in a blog post about the new features. “Expanding this app to more people and devices is part of our commitment to make the world’s information universally accessible and to build helpful products with and for people with disabilities.”