With Amazon Echo devices which have a camera, such as the Echo Look or the Echo Show, there’s a capability which I think needs to be pursued which I’ve not heard anybody else mention. I’m talking about OCR. In plain English, this is the capability where you place a printed page on a scanner or in front of a camera and run a piece of software which is able to convert that picture of text into actual text which anybody can read or edit, including users who rely on screen readers. In Windows, we use programs such as OpenBook, Kurzweil 1000 or FineReader to perform these tasks for us. We’ve had these capabilities for decades. Recent advances with smartphones and tablets have given us the same capability with a more portable package, using apps such as KNFB Reader or the free Seeing AI app from Microsoft. Amazon is promoting their new Echo Look product as a sort of electronic fashion adviser. If this is all you’ll be able to do with the Echo Look’s camera then I feel we’ve missed a great opportunity to turn the Echo devices into the next print reading machine. Imagine if we had skills for the Echo devices, such as KNFB Reader, Seeing AI and other OCR apps. You could hold out a sheet of paper in front of your Echo’s camera and issue a command, such as “Alexa, ask KNFB Reader to read this for me.” The camera would take a picture and, within less than a minute, Alexa would read the page for you. Specially made stands, like the Fopito, could be manufactured and sold to allow a blind person to conveniently read one page after another of a book or magazine. True, you wouldn’t be able to edit the document on your Echo device but it would give blind people a quick and convenient way to at least hear the information on the page. If you had an Echo Show, Alexa could then allow that particular device to display that document on its screen, allowing you to review it using the built-in VoiceView screen reader. Additionally, you could issue commands to export that document to another location, such as being able to say “Alexa, send this to my OneDrive” or “Send this to my Dropbox”, allowing you to use your PC, phone or tablet to open and/or edit that file.
There are other scenarios which should also be possible, such as currency identification. Imagine how cool it would be to take a bill out of your wallet and say, “Alexa, identify this currency” or “Alexa, ask Seeing AI to identify my money.” The camera would snap a picture and Alexa would respond, “This is a five-dollar bill.”
I can also envision skills used to help us to identify objects. Imagine being able to hold a can of some unknown food items to your Echo’s camera and saying something like, “Alexa, ask TapTapSee about this object.”
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against having an Alexa device being used to take pictures of the various outfits which might be hanging up in your closet. However, it strikes me that a voice assistant with a camera could be used for so much more than that, which would tremendously serve both blind and sighted users alike. I would like to encourage software developers to consider writing such a skill, which so many people would benefit from.