Close up of 12-digit UPC barcode.
Accessibility & Technology

Smartphone Barcode Readers Help Visually impaired People

Jun 16, 2022

Smartphone Barcode Readers Help Visually impaired People

Universal Product Codes (UPC) are the barcodes found on just about every product sold at retail. They are 12-digit codes that identify the product details. These are the codes scanned at the register each time you check out, perhaps most notably, at the supermarket. You know how they look, although you probably don’t think much about them. The information in product barcodes can be enormously helpful for people with vision loss, yet this is not an application widely adopted, possibly because the talking scanners created for blind and visually impaired users were previously priced out of range for everyday consumers. Today barcode readers are available in two popular accessibility apps, and they’re free.

UPC barcodes on stickers.
UPC barcodes on stickers

Product barcodes can be surprisingly useful in the kitchen to get a product’s cooking instructions or nutrition facts when you cannot read the packaging and prefer to have it spoken. In a store, barcodes can be very useful in determining the specific flavor, scent, color and size of the item you’re looking at. Some codes have a lot of information to read through, others have less, depending on the type of product and its requirements.

Seeing AI on iPhone scanning barcode to identify product. Image credit: Microsoft.com
Seeing AI on iPhone scanning barcode to identify
product. Image credit: Microsoft.com

Accessible Barcode Reading Apps

The Seeing AI app, developed by Microsoft for iOS, includes the Product Channel, which is a talking barcode reader. If you can’t find the barcode visually, audible cues indicate its location. Once found, the barcode is scanned automatically and the product details are spoken. The UPC on a small box of pasta says the product name “Barilla Orzo.” At the bottom of the screen there is a tab to access “More Info” including product weight and cooking instructions, ingredients and nutritional information, all of which is incredibly easy and very useful for a visually impaired person. This app also reads Short Text, Documents, Currency, Color and more.

For Android, Google developed Lookout, an app that also offers reads barcodes in its Shopping Mode. Like Seeing Ai, this app also offers modes for Quick Read, Document Scan, Explore and Food Labels. 

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About the Author: Dorrie Rush

Dorrie Rush is the Chief Content Officer and Visual Accessibility Expert at Ophthalmic Edge Patients (OE Patients), an online resource, presented by the Association for Macular Diseases, providing practical information and empowering advice for living a full and successful life with vision loss.

She is the former Director of the Grunwald Technology Center and Information Resource Service at Lighthouse International 2001 to 2016. Dorrie is known to have an eccentric view, which is particularly useful in compensating for her central vision loss from Stargardt Disease.

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