I recently went on a weeklong trip to Austin, Texas where I had the opportunity to visit several different museums, speak at Texas School for the Blind, try lots of amazing delicious food, and attend other events related to low vision and assistive technology. I often rely on assistive technology apps on my Android phone while traveling, and my most-used app by far is the Google Assistant app, which has several awesome features for helping people with low vision with daily activities, as well as having a lot of helpful uses for travel. Here is how I use the Google Assistant app on my phone while traveling with low vision, and how I use it in my home environment as well.
Post update- Google Assistant camera is now Google Lens
This post previously went into detail about the Google Assistant camera functionality as well as the Google Assistant app. The Google Assistant camera is now part of the Google Lens app, which I still use frequently, and now contains information about using both the Google Assistant app and Google Lens app with low vision.
Select Android phones also have Google Lens functionality built into the Camera app, which can be accessed by opening the “Modes” menu within the Camera app and selecting Lens. I have this on my Google Pixel phone, but am not sure about its availability on other Android phones.
Checking flight information with Google Assistant
Instead of opening up the airline app on my phone, I can ask Google Assistant for the gate number for my flight, as well as additional details such as its expected arrival/departure time and length. Since the airline app I was using did not support proper text scaling with large print, looking up my flight information with Google Assistant was an incredibly smart move since the airline app had cut off the last digit of my gate number. When there was another problem with my flight, I was also able to ask Google Assistant to call the airline directly so I didn’t have to spend time looking for a phone number to call.
Scanning product barcodes
Shortly after arriving in Austin, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few snacks and items to have in the mini fridge. Since I have a few different food intolerances/allergies, it’s critical that I read the labels of various food products, especially local/regional products I may not be familiar with that could have unexpected allergens. I use the Shopping function in Google Lens to scan product barcodes and pull up digital copies of the nutrition facts and ingredients lists of products listed on the store website, and can also get information about store prices and coupons as well.
If the barcode scanner doesn’t work, I read or type the name of the product into the Google Assistant app and run a web search for more information.
Identifying animals and plants
Texas School for the Blind has a beautiful campus filled with lots of local plants and animals, and I was mesmerized by their gorgeous flower garden. I was curious to learn more about the different types of flowers, and used the Search function to take a picture of a flower to figure out what type it was. One of my favorites was identified as the Indian Paintbrush, which was a gorgeous fiery red color.
In addition to identifying plants, the Search function can also identify animals, which I tested with snakes, turtles, and lizards on the TSBVI campus, and later at a park near where I was staying that had several peacocks.
- How To Describe Flowers for the Blind and Visually Impaired
- How To Write Video Descriptions For Animal Videos On Social Media
Viewing high-resolution images at a museum
Austin has a ton of amazing museums with interesting items on exhibit, though there were some cases where I had trouble seeing items on display due to poor contrast vision or lighting. One of my strategies for finding high resolution versions of artwork or artifacts on display is to use the Search function to take a photo of an object, and search the web for that image. This was especially helpful for smaller items at history museums.
Another option for using Google Assistant at a museum is to use the Text option in Google Lens to enlarge exhibit labels/signs that can be copy and pasted into another application. I typically would copy and paste text into a notepad-type app or run a web search with the text of the label to find a high resolution image.
- Museum Accessibility Supports For Low Vision
- Visiting The National Museum of the American Indian With Low Vision
- Accessible Virtual Field Trip- The 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Taking photos with Google Assistant
A popular option for taking photos hands-free is to ask the Google Assistant to take a photo, which is automatically stored in the gallery. Unless a user sets a timer for longer, Google Assistant will take the photo about three seconds after processing the user’s request.
To activate the Google Assistant camera, users can either type or say:
- Take a selfie
- Take a photo
- Take a picture
- Open Camera app (does not automatically take a photo)
- Start video recording
- Start video recording front camera
Other phrases and commands may also be supported with Google Assistant, but these are the ones that I use the most often.
Asking for directions
Where is that restaurant located? Can I walk to that park from where I am right now? Where am I right now? The Google Assistant app makes it easy for me to orient myself to my location and get directions for where to go next. I have an entire post about how I use GPS applications with low vision linked below.
Another helpful tool for orientation and mobility within the Google Lens app is the Places function, which allows users to take a picture of a building to get additional information. I mostly used this for restaurants when walking in an area with several options, or for identifying nearby buildings when on a boat tour.
- Blindness Canes and GPS Applications: Navigating College Campuses
- How I Learned To Use The City Bus System With Low Vision
Checking the activity level of local attractions
Another helpful feature of the Google Assistant app is being able to check popular times and real-time crowd information for businesses, which is helpful when traveling in unfamiliar areas. I used this function to plan trips to museums and restaurants to make sure that I avoided peak times whenever possible.
Other ways to use Google Assistant while traveling
- Reading price tags at a store with the Text or Shopping function
- Ordering ridesharing services with Google Assistant
- Identifying foods on a plate/names of dishes with the Food function (not recommended for people with food allergies)
- Reading hotel information or handouts with the Text function
- Setting alarms and timers with Google Assistant