Vision Loss: We Tested Text & Facial Recognition Apps on iPhone & Android

By Kelly Short, Master of Science in Deaf Education

Last Updated, October 2020

If you or a loved one experience vision loss or impairment, there are many applications available on your smartphone that can help. We have written companion guides on apps for people with vision loss and also technology tips for people with hearing loss.

I also wanted to show you how they work in real-life, and so below I'll show you the results of three tests. Keep in mind for your own experiments to be sure to have your volume turned on. You may need your device screen reader on; it varies by app.

Test #1: Handwriting Recognition

I wrote the following on an unlined side of a white index card:703 Main St. New York, NY Jones-Smith

Sullivan+ did a great job and accurately read other handwriting examples.

Seeing AI performed well, too.

Envision AI did OK, although it read “7” as “1”. On the second attempt, it read the number correctly.

Google Lens was on general search and attempted to fit the note to Maps (makes sense!). Its read omitted “NY” and the name Jones-Smith.

After Lens was set to read text specifically, it read the note accurately.

Lookout by Google didn't do too hot.

Microsoft Office Lens with Immersive Reader did terribly, too. Don't rely on it or Lookout by Google for handwriting.

Test #2 – Recognizing “Small Text”

The text in this section comes from this over-the-counter medication box:
Some of the pictures below may seem to “cut off” the text. That's because we're not showing each and every associated picture. Rest assured that the apps below rendered the entire text block.

Sullivan+ did great.

Seeing AI did fine overall, but the split columns (red text portion at the top) caused some confusion.

Envision AI did pretty well.

Google Lens did well, too.

Lookout by Google rendered the text accurately enough.

Microsoft Office Lens with Immersive Reader held its own, too.

Test #3: Real-Time, Real-World Apps: Objects and Faces

Overall, the recognition of objects and faces is a mixed bag. Take a gander at these results. (In your own trials, be sure to have your volume on. You may need your device screen reader enabled; it varies by app.)


Seeing AI
We tried multiple channels and multiple people. However, facial recognition by name didn't work in this app like it did in Envision AI.

Envision AI

Google Lens: Face description and identification is extremely limited as of September 2020 and really only works with Pixel phones and celebrities. (These photos were not taken on a Pixel.) In this trial, Google Lens focused on the necklace the subject wore and showed products similar to the necklace:

TapTapSee was the only app other than Google Lens to specifically identify the flower as a sunflower. It also described the picture subject according to the color of her eyeglasses and clothes, which can be nice details to have.

Aipoly Vision (free version): This app prefers that you point the camera at just one object at a time. It recognizes sunglasses or eyeglasses but not a face. Interestingly, it identified our water bottle as a drinking fountain while the other apps said it was a toy.

Lookout by Google offers ongoing narration but doesn't put the text of what is being said on the device screen. That's not an issue for many people, but it's something to keep in mind if you need text. The picture here gives you some idea of what to expect.

Wrapping Up

All-in-all, if you or a loved one has vision loss, I recommend giving these apps a try. They'll take a little getting used to, and some testing in order to understand what each app is (or is not yet) good at.