Hawai‘i Residents Develop Apps to Aid People Who Are Deaf and Blind

Both mobile phone programs, MyEar and UniDescription, are available for download in the App Store.
Phone apps
Photo: Thinkstock


Brandon Isobe always thought becoming a doctor would be the best way to help his father, who was born deaf. But the 30-year-old Punahou graduate discovered a different path to aid his dad, Gerald, in ways he never imagined—software development.


The father-son duo developed the MyEar app, released in the Apple Store in November for $9.99. It translates voice to text to help those who are deaf or hearing impaired better communicate.


It’s easy to use—you speak into a headset that is plugged into an iPhone and the app translates audio into text, which someone who is deaf or hearing impaired can read on the screen. It is also available in Spanish, Japanese and other languages.


Prior to the app, Gerald Isobe, 66, would lip read because no one in his family knew sign language until Brandon took American Sign Language classes in college. The elder Isobe didn’t learn sign language until his first year of college—there were very few resources and opportunities to learn ASL growing up. He now uses the app every day at work (he’s an accountant at Pearl Harbor), at home and when running errands.


“It’s difficult for somebody to rely on lip reading if you’re talking too fast. There’s a lot that my dad would miss out on,” says the younger Isobe, who lives in San Francisco. “My dad and I are still big advocates for sign language, but this supplement can help a lot.”


Meanwhile, Brett Oppegaard, a UH Mānoa communications professor, saw an accessibility gap at the national parks for people who are blind or visually impaired.


A few years ago, he began working on the UniDescription project, which seeks to translate visual media at national parks, such as photos and maps, into acoustic formats.


The app provides mp3 files and audio descriptions of dozens of National Park Service brochures, including Hawai‘i Volcanoes, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks. It is available for free on Apple and Android devices.


“We want to give everybody the opportunity to enjoy the national parks,” Oppegaard says. “You might think that someone blind or visually impaired might not be able to … but there are other ways they can: the smells, the sounds, the conversations with people.”


The project received two National Park Service grants totaling about $350,000, as well as an additional $75,000 from Google.


The team, which includes Oppegaard’s research assistant, Sajja Koirala, who is blind, spent a day in November testing the app with 26 blind and visually impaired people at Yosemite National Park. He says reception to the app has been positive, and that the goal is to “audio describe the world.”