Emerging Technologies for the Blind Face Hurdles

The Smart Specs prototype was designed in collaboration with Google and the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom.  (Va-ST )

Wendy Poth has been blind most of her life. After losing her sight at age 8, Poth became the first blind person in the state of New York to graduate from a public high school. She didn’t stop there, going on to college and graduate school.

Now 61, Poth lives alone with the help of a few adaptive technologies -- many sensor-laden devices speak to Poth and identify pills or call out temperature and weight of food when cooking. Like many visually impaired people, Poth also takes advantage of accessibility apps on her iPhone. Among her favorites are Light Detector, which tells Poth if the lights are on so guests won’t stumble in the dark, and TapTapSee, which uses voice-over to describe where things are in a room.

Apple offers dozens of accessibility apps designed for people with impaired vision, including screen readers that speak text from emails and websites, voice-to-text and voice-enabled GPS applications.

Wendy Poth, at home in Wisconsin.
Wendy Poth, at home in Kansas City. (Courtesy of Wendy Poth)

“Apple been such an amazing game-changer. I have my iPhone 6 in my hand half of my waking hours, at least,” Poth says, adding that old reading programs were prohibitively expensive and slow to update.

“Every time something was upgraded it would take six months to a year to reprogram what they needed,” she says. “Not to say that [Apple’s] new releases don’t have some glitches in how voice-over works, but there are glitches in new upgrades for both sighted and blind alike.”

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San Francisco-based architect Chris Downey lost his vision in 2008 and says he doesn’t like to be too plugged-in. Downey, who designed the new LightHouse for the Blind building in downtown San Francisco, works with the help of a screen reader, a Braille blueprint printer and the inTACT Sketchpad. Where he previously used wax sticks to create drawings that would need to be copied, Downey can use the digitizing sketchpad to draw designs freehand.

“You can feel what you just drew,” says Downey. “It’s a product primarily developed and intended for children. We quickly realized its immense potential as a dynamic graphic interface for my work.”

Kevin, an eSight user, says the goggles replaced accommodations he previously used at school. Some eSight users want the AR goggles to read, others to see faces and shapes.
Kevin, an eSight user, says the goggles replaced accommodations he previously used at school. Some eSight users want the AR goggles to read; others use them to see faces and shapes. (eSight)

Other technologies that are shaping up to play a huge role in helping the blind see are emerging wearable devices using virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Facebook’s Oculus VR is one example.

Typically, virtual reality goggles are designed to immerse people in gaming. But their cameras and ultra-powerful computers can also provide exaggerated images or auditory help for the visually impaired. With augmented reality, computer-generated images add to the real world.

AR goggles are a great solution for the blind because they’re mobile and hands free, says Frank Jones, CTO and vice president of engineering at eSight. Using a high-definition camera, eSight’s headset magnifies whatever the wearer is looking at, in real time, and tilts to engage peripheral vision.

Similarly, Smart Specs from UK-based Va-ST (pronounced: “VAST”) use 3-D mapping and depth sensing to provide object and facial recognition assistance for some users who have limited vision. The result is a high-contrast black-and-white image that allows the user to more clearly see shapes and register distance.

“Human eye contact is clearly a very important part of human interaction,” he says. “So, we need to concern ourselves with allowing physical eye contact to take place while providing the vision system that allows users to see detail.”

This still from a Meta promo video shows how the goggles allow users to manipulate virtual objects.
This still from a Meta promo video shows how the goggles allow users to manipulate virtual objects. (Meta)

There are several optical, mechanical, performance and software challenges to overcome before AR can reach its full potential. Jones says it’s critically important that high-definition images process extremely quickly, with no more than a few milliseconds of lag time, to combat vertigo in users. And the look of the device is also important.

Price is another huge factor that companies need to tackle; Va-ST hopes to sell its goggles for under $1,000 and eSight is offered for a cool $15,000. Although people who are blind tend to be early adopters of new technology, Downey notes, “the population, generally speaking, is underemployed and having to pay high prices to be able to see.”

However, like many emerging technologies, the price of augmented reality is all about perspective.

“My iPhone has replaced six other devices that I used to have, all of them more expensive than the single iPhone, each with their own power cord, interface, support mechanism – and none of it being local,” Downey says. “Maybe [AR] looks expensive but in the long run it’s more affordable.”

The mobile advising company Digi-Capital projects that AR will be a $120 billion business by the year 2020. There are conferences dedicated to augmented and virtual reality, and multiple forecasts expect medical wearables to represent a growing portion of the consumer electronics market.

Speaking from her home in Wisconsin, Poth says she is open to the idea of AR glasses. However, her most important tool is decidedly low-tech: a white cane to sweep the area in front of her while walking.

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“If somebody said you could have a cane or an iPhone, it would be a very, very hard decision. I would not want to live without either,” she says, laughing.

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