Image shows logo of a icon of a man with a cane in a light blue circle. Underneath it says the words Blindness Awareness Month logo 2020.Lookout by Google is a free smartphone app for Android devices which can automatically read and scan text, recognise products and describe objects. Indeed on paper, Lookout shares similarities with the popular Seeing AI app from Microsoft which has been available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices in the UK since 2018.

How do they compare and does Lookout represent comparable value for blind and partially sighted Android users seeking to harness AI to harness their understanding of the world around them?

Read on to find out initial thoughts from the Technology team at Thomas Pocklington Trust.


Reading text

Lookout by Google is the latest example of an ai-driven app equipped with automatic text reading and scanning features. Lookout has two modes for handling text:

  • Quick Read mode - automatically scans for text in real-time, reading aloud any text as it is identified

  • Scan Document mode - Performs more in-depth text analysis for increased accuracy with guided instruction for optimum camera placement

Using both modes, I was able to successfully read a letter written in 12-point print. With quick Read mode active, Lookout began reading the letter as soon as my phone's camera was close enough for text to come into focus. When using Scan Document mode, Lookout provided useful guidance which helped me to position my phone so that the entire page was visible, before automatically scanning and starting to read the whole page methodically from top to bottom.

Furthermore, when faced with a printed high street voucher, Lookout was able to recognise its value as well as some of the listed outlets where the voucher is accepted. However, my favourite use for Quick Read mode is reading my computer screen. Tests performed while writing this review indicate this will prove to be invaluable when encountering unresponsive situations where a screen reader cannot reliably function, such as during start up errors or while experiencing general system instability. This is a common use for Seeing AI, and it is encouraging that Lookout is also proving effective in this regard.



Recognising products

Lookout by Google can identify many branded food products from their barcodes and packaging. The food label mode is labelled as "beta", a common tech term for experimental which suggests that this feature is still being developed. Even so, Lookout successfully identified a Thai curry pot noodle, Branston sausage and beans and multi-packs of popular soft drinks. When experiencing unsuccessful scans, Lookout advises to rotate the product and try again. However, we have experienced less reliable results while scanning own brand products such as supermarket pizzas or ready meals.



Describing objects

At time of publication, there is currently one more experimental mode present in Lookout by Google, Explore mode. When Explore mode is active, Lookout seeks to recognise and describe objects. This is another example of mainstream developments in augmented reality having potential positive implications for blind and partially sighted people. During testing, Lookout accurately described a Roberts DAB radio as is and identified a Panasonic cordless handset as a mobile phone. Though this is undoubtedly the mode requiring most work, it is currently an area of general interest for many tech companies, including Google.



Conclusion

Lookout by Google is rightly receiving a great deal of interest from blind and partially sighted people. Though Apple devices are still popular with blind and partially sighted consumers, Android is very much becoming an attractive alternative platform thanks to innovations such as Lookout. Given Google's historic investment in book scanning technology, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Lookout is already producing some of the most accurate text and product recognition solutions we have yet come across.

Lookout currently ships with relatively modest system requirements, meaning it should be compatible with many camera-equipped Android devices manufactured since 2016 including the vast majority currently on the market. Not so very long ago, dedicated barcode scanners on their own sold for hundreds of pounds, money which in 2020 can almost certainly cover the cost of an accessible smartphone. Lookout is a welcome entry into this space and has huge potential for increasing independence and enabling blind and partially sighted people to live the life they want to lead.