The Magic of Mobile Money Identification

Have you ever wondered how blind people identify U.S. bills without help? Most people never give it a thought, but people like bank tellers and cab drivers, even random strangers in stores, ask me how I, as a blind person, identify money. There’s no magic to it, nor has there been, until recently.

Blind people who don’t have enough vision to see bills aren’t born with a “special extra sense” that permits us to identify bills by touch. However, we can definitely learn to recognize coins by sound and touch. In fact, I’m quite good at that. On occasion, I mention to people that they dropped a dime, quarter, nickel, or penny. But U.S. bills are an entirely different matter.

In recent years, assistive technology has made it possible to identify paper money. Blind people can use scanners and special computer software that recognizes the bill and speaks its denomination aloud. Alternatively, there are handheld devices, costing a few hundred dollars apiece, that identify money. But the true revolution in money identification for blind people in the U.S. is the availability of accessible mobile phones and the accompanying applications, or apps. And most of these apps are quite affordable.

As a new iPhone user, for the first time just a few weeks ago, I successfully identified my change without sighted assistance, simply by placing the bill under my phone’s camera. Then, I could fold my bills in the different ways I always do, and place them in my wallet. This kind of independence may seem like a small matter, but it is liberating not to have to rely on others when handling cash—no more holding up the line in the store or wondering whether I received the correct change.

A Little History about U.S. Bills and the Blind Community

For about twenty years, many in the blind community have attempted to convince the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to make bills independently identifiable by blind and visually-impaired people. Some possible methods include different sizes, tactile markings, and different colors. You may have observed strategies like these implemented in many countries. However, the U.S. Treasury Department has been reluctant to implement currency changes due to the initial cost, changes for businesses and vending machines, and other challenges.

An article by Darren Burton in the American Foundation for the Blind’s AccessWorld from March 2011, “A Tech Geek Talks Money: An AFB TECH Lab Rat Discusses the Accessibility of Financial Technology,” indicates the American Council of the Blind sued the U.S. Treasury in 2002 “for their failure to design paper currency that is easily identifiable by people with vision loss.” After several years, the BEP issued a notice requesting comments on the strategies to be proposed to the Secretary of the Treasury, according to the Federal Register. The notice states that the three main options under consideration are as follows:

  1. Tactile Feature. As part of the next currency redesign, BEP will develop and deploy a raised tactile feature that builds upon current tactile feature technologies. The tactile feature will be unique to each Federal Reserve note denomination that it may lawfully change, and will provide users with a means of identifying each denomination by way of touch.
  2. Large, High-Contrast Numerals. Consistent with current practice, BEP will continue its practice of adding large, high-contrast numerals and different and distinct color schemes to each denomination that it is permitted by law to alter to further assist visually impaired citizens.
  3. Supplemental Currency Reader Program. BEP also proposes to recommend to the Secretary of the Treasury a supplemental measure that will be taken in order to provide access to U.S. currency. This measure would involve a process to loan and distribute currency readers to the blind and visually impaired at no cost to them. BEP believes this process will ameliorate difficulties stemming from the transition that will occur during the co-circulation of notes with and without a tactile feature, and large, high contrast numerals, a transition which will persist for many years after the introduction of the tactile-enhanced note.

Availability of Apps on Mobile Phones

In 2011, with the release of an iPhone app called EyeNote, the Treasury Department was among those who took an exciting step to address the issue of money identification, at least for iPhone users. iPhone users can use EyeNote, as well as IQ Engine’s oMoby, or the LookTel Money Reader from IPPLEX for spoken currency recognition. While the LookTel product currently costs $9.99 in the Apple app store, the other two options are free. What a pleasure it is to have several choices at my fingertips, and all three apps work with all generations of the iPhone.

Though I do not use an Android-based phone, I was pleased to notice that New Designs Unlimited LLC developed a new app named Darwin Wallet  that is now available for Android phones. When you place a bill in front of the camera, Darwin Wallet (for Android 2.2 and above) recognizes and speaks the value of U.S., UK, Canadian, EU, and Australian paper currencies.

My Experiences with Money Identification on the iPhone

As mentioned earlier, I was thrilled to be able to identify and sort my change by myself. I’ve tried all three apps—LookTel, EyeNote, and oMoby—and all three products were useful. I was confident while using them and recognized the value of each. oMoby is versatile; it can identify many objects, but works best on products. You can take a picture of an object like a jelly jar, and oMoby can probably find it. Although money-identification is not its primary purpose, it is handy to have on my phone. EyeNote requires me to activate the camera, so I prefer the LookTel product for its speed and ease of use.

In fact, the LookTel product was so easy to use that it fooled me; I tried to make it harder to use than it actually is. When I opened LookTel, I didn’t hear anything on my screen after exploring the screen with the iOS’s built-in screen reader, VoiceOver. I was looking for a button to activate my camera, but there isn’t one; it’s not necessary. All I had to do was to put the bill on a flat surface, hold the phone a few inches above the bill, and VoiceOver said, “Five dollars.” It was much easier than fumbling with bills as I walked with a sighted friend, having to remember to check my money when I was next at my computer, or even having to activate a button on the phone’s screen to take a picture of the bill. In addition, LookTel offers a software application, Money Reader for Mac, users who want to use a Mac instead of, or in addition to, their iPhone.

Both LookTel products can also identify currency from other countries. This flexibility will be most helpful when I next travel with my new iPhone. After a day or two, I can identify Euros by touch, and this app will help remind me of the different sizes and denominations.

After using each of the three apps, I far prefer the LookTel product. The cost is worth the ease of use, so I’m more than happy to support the company with its innovative approach. And based upon what I have seen in the product preview on the LookTel website, I cannot wait to experience the new capabilities that will be offered in the next product release. Additional LookTel solutions under development include identifying objects and landmarks, personalized image databases, remote sighted assistance, and a text reader.

The Future Seems Bright

Using mobile devices to access these easy and inexpensive money identification apps makes me hopeful about the future. Accessibility on the Android platform is gradually improving, so perhaps soon we won’t need specialized and expensive approaches to bill identification. If blind people can access apps on phones that will permit easy purchasing at the same time—and at the same cost—as the sighted community, we will truly be integrated into the mainstream of mobile money. Even now, although I have not yet had a chance to test all of the apps I’d like to, a range of banking and financial management apps are accessible.

If you are involved in building, designing, or testing an iPhone or Android app, please consider accessibility for a wide range of users, including those with disabilities. You might be surprised to find how easy and fun it can be to test these apps for yourself. Maybe you don’t need to identify your money with your phone, but think about the various things you can do with your smartphone when it talks to you. Join the many app developers, like those making identification of money possible, who are committed to providing an easy user experience for everyone.

Additional Accessibility Resources

Learning more about Android Accessibility

All Android phones with Android version 1.6 or later have free built-in support for speech output and accessibility. Android is customizable even if not all applications are accessible. To offer the most accessible results on the Android platform, it’s ideal to focus on building for Ice Cream Sandwich.

Learning More about iOS Accessibility

Sutton, J. (2012). The Magic of Mobile Money Identification. User Experience Magazine, 11(2).
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