Vision in a pocket

Seeing the light in a world of darkness

Saqib Shaikh, a Software Developer at Microsoft lost his sight at the tender age of seven but being visually impaired did not stop him from ‘seeing’ the world. With the use of technology, Saqib and the team at Microsoft has developed an app called Seeing AI, which gives the visually impaired community an opportunity to lead a better quality of life as it narrates the world around them.

See the world through the app that has transformed lives for the visually impaired as Saqib shares his experience using the app and hopes for the visually impaired community.

1Twenty80 :

Can you share with us your journey growing up visually impaired?

Saqib Shaikh :

I lost my sight when I was seven. I was going to a special school for visually impaired children and at 10, I attended boarding school. I had lots of great experiences there as everything was adapted and it was really good. We could do anything! From sports such as football and cricket, athletics, even music but I was no good (laughs) and the computer room with all the talking computers and that’s where I hung out.

At 13, I started to programme and it was like a hobby. Eventually, I realised that I was good at this and I decided that this is probably the job that I’ll do.

So, I went to a university at 18 and three years later, I went to another university to do my Masters. After graduating, I worked with a company called Vodafone for about a year and a quarter before I joined Microsoft. “If I can dream anything, I would like to fill in the gaps for us… “

1Twenty80 :

What is the Seeing AI app and glasses that helps the visually impaired ‘see’?

Saqib Shaikh :

The glasses are a prototype, an initial idea and then we thought, why not put the idea on a mobile phone? It could help many people who are visually impaired and it could be downloaded for free. I was working on the app for a couple of years. As you can see, my phone talks to me as well as my computer and this is why I’m able to use everything including my computer to programme and work. On my phone, I have the app that links to the camera and what’s different is that you can get your phone to recognise what it ‘sees’. This includes documents, menus and I can even find out about the people in the room. The app is available in nine countries for people to download for free but not in Malaysia just yet.

1Twenty80 :

What inspired you to develop this?

Saqib Shaikh :

I had this idea for so many years but I felt that technology was not ready for it just yet. Then, about two to three years ago, the world of technology made it more possible. Today, with this app, I can hold my phone up and it recognises someone for me. There’s a professor using the app too and it tells him who walks through the door.

1Twenty80 :

What’s your hope for the visually impaired people around the world?

Saqib Shaikh :

If I can dream anything, I would like to fill in the gaps for us… So, if you can’t hear, you’ll be able to tell the sound around you and for someone who is blind, then the app or program should tell you what’s going on and what I’m interested in. It’ll be like a friend in my pocket. It can tell me things that I can’t see.

For example, when I travel abroad, it’ll help me translate languages like Malay, which I can’t understand.

1Twenty80:

How important is the role of education?

Saqib Shaikh :

I think it’s essential for people who are visually impaired to receive the same education as others. It opens the doors of the future and you’ll be able to find your way around and face challenges. Also, the internet opens borders which creates more opportunities.

At a glimpse: Scan the QR code to watch a video that will give you a good glimpse of Seeing AI, and the prototype glasses that Saqib mentioned.

At a glance

Statistics from 2010 by the World Health Organisation show that 285 million people around the world are visually impaired.

Visual impairment can affect a person’s ability to interact with their surroundings and perform everyday tasks. However today, the world has become more inclusive whereby one can experience the world just like any other person.

Here are some worldwide facts about visual impairment.

  • 80 percent of causes of visual impairment around the world are avoidable.
  • Alicia Alonso, one of the greatest ballerinas of all time, lost her sight at 19 but continued to perform all over the world until her late 70s. She relied on strategically placed spotlights to navigate her way on stage.
  • Helen Keller, American author, political activist and lecturer, was the first deaf and blind person to graduate from college.
  • When it comes to the sense of smell, people who are blind are generally better at identifying a smell as compared to people with sight. 1.4 million children are blind with major causes being cataracts and vitamin A deficiency.
  • Just like everyone else, visually impaired individuals do experience dreams while sleeping but the difference is that they’re usually associated with smells, sounds and taste.  Italian singer, songwriter and record producer, Andrea Bocelli became blind after a sports accident at the age of 12.
  • Fewer than 2 percent of visually impaired individuals use a white cane to navigate. Some use guide dogs whereas some go about without any guiding tools.

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