Kitchen barcode reader for the blind or the time poor

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

For anyone who is blind or cannot see well the kitchen can be a real challenge. The first challenge is to know what is in all the similarly shaped tins and packets in the cupboard or fridge/freezer. A related challenge is to know what is written on each of them such as the cooking instructions and ingredients.

The solution parts

There are several solutions available but in my opinion they are not complete so let us look at the solution parts and the gap that still needs to be filled.

Barcode scanner

Any packaged product has a barcode so this seems the obvious place to start. So scanning the barcode should provide a key to all the information about the content.

If a user has some vision the barcode is fairly distinctive and it will not be difficult to point the barcode reader accurately enough, especially as omni-directional barcode readers will read the code even when it is not well aligned.

If the user cannot see then it may still be possible to learn where the barcode is likely to be; the bottom of a narrow edge is a common place, but it may be just about anywhere. A user might be able to find the code by trial and error. To speed things up I have seen small plastic bumps stuck on the package next to the barcode; finding the bump and then pointing the omni-directional reader at it will provide a read out.

There are portable barcode readers on the market such as the I.D. Mate Omni Bar Code Scanner or the ScanTalker for the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific. These read the barcode and then look it up in a preloaded database and using text to voice technology read the description out via a speaker or earphones.

Both these devices are supplied with a database of hundreds of thousands of barcodes and their descriptions. The problem is that this is always out of date in comparison to the supermarket product lines. They also provide the facility to scan a barcode and then record a description. They do not seem to provide a function to download new text from a connected computer.

Supermarket database

If you go on-line to a major supermarket such as Tesco you can find a product and then click on further information this will give you, in most cases, all the information that is printed on the pack including name, description, weight, ingredients, cooking instructions and nutritional values. So all the information that a vision impaired user requires is accessible (in fact this can be extended to include other people who find reading difficult for medical, cultural or educational reasons).

The gap

There is a barcode reader that can read out information related to the barcode and there is a database with all the information that needs to be read out. So we should have a solution:

  • Order the products on-line.
  • Download the product descriptions for the products ordered.
  • Load the product descriptions and barcodes on to the device.
  • Use the barcode reader when required.
  • When a product is used use the barcode reader to store the barcode as the basis of a shopping list.
  • Upload the shopping list to reorder the products.

So where is the problem? Unfortunately there are two gaps:

  • The supermarket databases do not include the barcode so it is not possible to automatically relate the barcode to the description. This also means the barcode cannot be used for re-ordering.
  • There does not seem to be a published way to download new text from a computer onto the barcode device. So even if the description could be extracted from the supermarket database it cannot be uploaded on to the device.

The solution

There is a need for some cooperation from the supermarkets and the device manufacturers.

Firstly, the supermarkets need to provide the barcode as part of the product description (I have looked at one supermarket site and I think the code is in the description but not in an explicit or necessarily reliable way)—this cannot be difficult to include.

Secondly, the product information should be provided in an easily usable format, preferably in some product description specific XML, so it can easily be parsed and translated into a format that is understood by the device.

Thirdly, the device manufacturers need to provide a method of generating files on a PC that can then be uploaded onto the device.

The benefit

The benefit to people with vision impairments or other print impairments is obvious.

However, to make it really attractive to the supermarkets there needs to be a wider benefit. The potential benefit is to help the cash-rich, time-poor consumers speed up the reorder process. When a product is used the consumer would be able to scan the barcode (it should be possible to use the camera of a mobile phone as a simple reader), the list is then uploaded to the supermarket website to create a new shopping basket.

This could be another example where some technology designed to improve accessibility for people with disabilities will benefit the wider population. If this is the case the business case for doing it becomes trivial.

Dutch Translation

NCT Magazine, in the Netherlands, has made this file available in a Dutch translation