(Nearly 15 million people suffer from blindness in India. World Sight Day is observed to increase awareness and to focus global attention on blindness and vision impairment. This article was first published on 1 April 2017.)
Technology today isn’t just about providing people with filters to transform their faces into cute puppies. It’s also helping people ‘see’ cute puppies for the first time.
Technology for differently-abled people is massively progressing through the years. From Braille in the 19th century to smart glasses and smart canes in the 21st century – new inventions to help the visually-impaired have evolved in leaps and bounds.
Now, the bar has been raised further. The focus is now on assistive tools that allow the visually impaired to ‘see’, instead of just helping them feel the world around. Here are six such innovative technologies:
1. BrainPort V100
A device to help the visually impaired “see with their tongues,” the BrainPort V100 uses a camera attached to a pair of glasses to convert the images into electrical signals.
One part of the device is placed in the person’s mouth, and they receive the signal through their tongue. The user is trained to read the signals; like Braille for the tongue.
This device does not replace a cane or a guide dog. It is designed to improve spatial awareness, object recognition and assist in mobility.
The idea is to create a ‘feel-based’ image which allows blind people to visualise objects around them.
Most of the users who tried the device said it helped them gain some sort of visual semblance about the physical world around them.
2. eSight 3
In the absence of a medical solution for people who are legally blind, eSight 3 helps restore eyesight for those who have lived without it for years, decades, and in some cases, entire lifetimes.
This device enables people who only had some peripheral vision but no or low central vision to fully see.
The headsets transmit images from a forward-facing camera to small internal screens in a way that beams the video into the wearer's peripheral vision.
Although eSight's glasses won't help people with total blindness, they could still be a huge deal for the millions of people with visual impairment.
In simple words, this technology allows people to perceive colour and shape through music.
A woman, who has been blind since birth, is asked to identify a bottle of cold drink from among three of them without knowing where exactly they’re kept, and she correctly does so with the help of the device.
How does she do it? The EyeMusic app constructs a "soundscape" that conveys visual information through musical notes. The musical cues – which combine into a pleasant tune – let them know the colour, shape, and location of objects.
With training to extract meaning from patterns of notes, the blind can learn to read, tell what they are looking at from far away, and even recognise facial expressions and body postures.
4. Argus II
The FDA-approved Argus II has given people with complete blindness a basic form of sight, and in some cases, even helped them read.
The device includes a bionic retinal implant for the eyes. It takes over the redundant retina’s role of generating electrical signals after receiving information from a camera. The implant then sends pulses down the optical nerve that the brain can learn to interpret as vision.
It’s nothing like vision we’d recognise, though – instead, it’s very abstract, often no more than pulses or flashes of light forming the shapes.
It needs an optic nerve to work, so this excludes the people who are blind because a severed optic nerve.
5. Assisted Vision Smart Glasses
These smart glasses display the world in outlines for the blind (not completely) and allows them to ‘see’ movement and even facial expressions.
It consists of video camera mounted on the frame of the glasses, a computer processing unit that is small enough to fit in a pocket and software that provides images of objects close-by on the see-through displays in the eyepieces of the glasses.
Anyone using the glasses looks through them to make the most of their existing sight, with additional images appearing in their line of sight to give extra information about who or what is in front of them.
While they cannot be used by people who can see nothing at all, they are designed for those who are 'severely sight impaired' and classified as blind. The glasses don’t replace lost vision, but assist with spatial awareness.
6. XploR, SmartCane, Ultracane
All these mobility aids use technology in various ways to help the people navigate better.
These smart canes detect obstacles (at various heights and not just below the waist, as is the case in normal canes) and alert the users through vibrations to help them while walking.
The XploR, for example, also includes a facial recognition function aimed at helping the blind recognise people.
Another one, the SmartCane, developed by IIT-Delhi alumni, is aimed at helping an estimated 15 million blind people in the country with low-cost assistive technology.
UltraCane, which has similar function, has been available in some countries since 2011.
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