Low vision affects an estimated 12 million adults over 40 in the U.S., often due to issues such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa and diabetes-related eye diseases. These sight-stealers can make navigating daily life more challenging, but a slew of fascinating technological innovations are able to help people with vision problems better perceive their environments and, therefore, live more independent lives.
"There are devices that try to take advantage of whatever little vision the person has to try to get them to see better, and there are devices that try to use other senses because their vision sense is essentially gone,” says Calvin W. Roberts, M.D., host of On Tech & Vision With Dr. Cal Roberts, a podcast series from Lighthouse Guild, a nonprofit organization dedicated to vision rehabilitation, technology and advocacy for people who are visually impaired. Roberts, who's also president and CEO of Lighthouse Guild, and a clinical professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, points to one such jaw-dropper, the OrCam MyEye Pro: a small, wireless camera that clips onto the arm of any pair of eyeglasses, allowing blind people to “read” their mail, recognize friends and even decipher money. And that's just for starters.
Here are details about the cutting edge of vision tech. Some of these devices are very pricey, but their makers may offer financing options (veterans may also qualify for assistance).
OrCam MyEye Pro
To decipher the world around them, blind people employ all of their four remaining senses, particularly sound — with the brain using auditory cues to create mental images. That's the premise behind the OrCam MyEye Pro: This cutting-edge technology helps those who are completely blind make sense of the visual world by describing what they can't see.
A small wireless smart camera about the size of your index finger attaches with a magnet to the arm of any eyeglasses. Point your finger or tap the touch bar and the camera will capture an image of what's in front of you and communicate the info audibly through a tiny speaker that rests above the ear. It makes shopping easier — scanning barcodes and identifying the denomination of the bill you're holding.
People can teach OrCam to memorize and identify hundreds of everyday objects (from logos on buildings to items in the fridge). The device continuously scans your surroundings, waiting for you to point to whatever you're interested in, then gives you the info you need. It even has facial recognition, so you can program it to remember your spouse, grandkids or coworkers. Use the camera to take a picture of a person's face and it's automatically stored within the device. Whenever the camera spots the person, it will identify them by name.
It also responds to voice commands, reading text from printed surfaces and digital screens. Open a newspaper and say, “Read the football article,” and it will do just that. OrCam MyEye Pro can help users make sense of their mail. Pick up an envelope, hold the clear window in front of your face, let OrCam's camera snap a picture, and it will tell you where the mail is from. Even more impressive, says Roberts: “You can hold up your electric bill and ask, ‘How much do I owe?’ The device will read through the entire bill, quickly, and respond, ‘You owe $31.92.’ It will even tell you when the payment is due. Amazing!"
Cost: OrCam MyEye Pro costs $4,250. Financial assistance is available for OrCam MyEye, depending on where the user lives and the specifics of his or her situation. Eligible veterans may qualify for the device through the VA.
When it comes to aiding blind people, the use of a white cane (or probing cane) is invaluable for navigating through the world. The taps provide information, helping the person detect obstacles, know when they've hit a curb or come to stairs, or that someone is standing in front of them. You might say that WeWALK, an innovative smart cane with a touch pad and speaker, does the white cane one better.
First, through the use of ultrasound, WeWALK can detect obstacles that are above chest level — such as tree branches, telephone poles and traffic signs — and alert the user by sending out a vibration. Secondly, it's efficient.
"Today, most every person with a white cane is also using GPS navigation on their phone,” notes Roberts. But juggling a white cane in one hand while using a smartphone in the other can be tricky. The WeWALK smart cane can wirelessly connect to the smartphone, so users can keep the phone in a pocket while walking, leaving one hand free — and allowing them to devote full attention to what's going on around them.
And users can employ the cane's touch pad to access an array of features. For example, WeWALK can connect with public transportation. “If you're walking to a bus stop,” says Roberts, “it'll tell you the number of the bus that's coming, as well as when it's coming.”
Cost: $599 for 51-, 54- or 59-inch cane
Where to buy: The WeWALK smart cane runs on Android and iOS-based mobile phones. It features a micro USB input that can be used to charge the battery, with one full charge lasting up to five hours of usage time, which means a few days' usage. You can buy the smart cane on wewalk.io or thelowvisionshop.com.
At first glance, eSight's sleek, wraparound headset looks like something straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Note to non-Trekkies: google “Geordi La Forge.") But this nifty device is actually a special kind of electronic eyeglasses that can provide enhanced vision for people who are legally blind or those with low vision. Some people have seen their visual acuity go from 20/600 to 20/20.
The premise: Although portions of their eyes are damaged or not working, those who are legally blind do retain limited sight, often concentrated in their peripheral vision. eSight heightens the function of the parts of the eye that are still working to compensate for the parts that aren't. The head-mounted display houses a small camera that captures everything the wearer is looking at in live video footage. The device's algorithms enhance the footage before displaying it on two high-resolution screens, in real time.
Through eSight's remote control, a built-in trackpad on the side of the headset, you can make adjustments (a boost in brightness, higher contrast, or increased sharpness) to enhance the quality of the image you're seeing. Users can autofocus on all distances: short (read the latest paperback or restaurant menu); medium (scan your computer screen); or far (get a good view of the concert stage). One feature, the “biopic tilt,” lets users adjust the device, flipping it up or down to move between enhanced and “natural” vision (to make eye contact).
The device also allows you to tap into the display of your smartphone, so you can stream content from your phone or TV directly to the screen in front of your eyes. What's more, says Roberts, “If your son or daughter has taken pictures of the grandkids, they can send it to your glasses."
Cost: The regular price of eSight 4 is $5,950, with the option of monthly financing. Those who have Veterans Affairs (VA) health coverage and are low vision or legally blind may qualify to receive a device paid for by the VA. Others can take advantage of a special crowdfunding platform (an advocate helps potential buyers locate sources of funding). What's more, eSight can assist you in reaching out to employers, community groups and organizations that may help pay some of the cost.
Where to buy: You can try eSight eyewear with a home evaluation. Just fill out an online form at esighteyewear.com or speak with an eSight adviser (855-837-4448) to see if you're a candidate.
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As any gamer can tell you, virtual reality can be a mind-blowing experience. Using computer-generated technology to simulate settings, we can immerse ourselves in another world — walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon or paddling around icebergs in a kayak — without leaving home.
IrisVision doesn't deliver a virtual reality experience but rather employs the premise of virtual reality to help people with low vision see better. Basically, the creators of the device tinkered with VR technology, taking a Samsung smartphone and mounting it on a VR headset. Instead of looking at a virtual world, you're looking at the real world. The smartphone's camera captures what's in front of you, then remaps the scene to enhance its visibility.
The user slips on the headset and peers through magnifying lenses, which make whatever is on the screen appear really large. The same image appears in front of each eye. A touch pad, located on the headset, lets you zoom in and out to see at different distances. Magnification happens inside a circular bubble. The user controls the size of the bubble — zeroing in to read the directions on a pill bottle or read a bedtime story to their grandkids, or expanding out to find a favorite box of cereal on a supermarket shelf or watch a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. Around the bubble, the view remains normal size to help the user maintain spatial awareness.
What's more, the device can help those with glaucoma or retinitis pigmentosa, or who have severe tunnel vision (imagine looking at the world through a plastic straw) to see better by “minifying” (basically, shrinking the entire image and projecting it onto a smaller viewing area — the small area of the retina that's still functioning). Roberts has a client who uses it on his stationary bike. “The bike has one of these console displays, where you can ‘bike’ someplace, such as French wine country,” says Roberts. “He couldn't see the videos very well because he has tunnel vision. But when he puts on IrisVision, he gets the whole picture."
Cost: IrisVision costs $2,950. It is not covered by insurance or Medicare but is covered by the VA for qualifying veterans and agencies served by the General Services Administration. Visit www.irisvision.com/veterans or call IrisVision at 855-449-4536 to learn more.
Where to buy: You can purchase IrisVision on shop.irisvision.com or Amazon.