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New Glasses Give The Blind Bionic Eyes

Smartphone and gaming tech offers the vision-impaired the promise of better lives, for much less than the cost of a guide dog.

guide dog

By combining imaging, display, and sensing technology honed for smartphones, with games consoles and systems like Microsoft’s Kinect, Oxford scientists have designed a set of high-tech glasses that could radically change the life of people suffering from a number of vision-impairing disorders. Think of the goggles as tech-packed bionic eyewear that combine elements of augmented reality–or a digital guide dog. In any case, this could be a stopgap tech before true bionic eyes are perfected.

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If you suffer from disorders like macular degeneration or diabetes-induced retinopathy, then the part of your eyes that sense light are damaged, and these diseases and a number of others can severely limit how you live your life–even navigating the street is all but impossible without help or learning to use a guide stick. Enter the normal-ish looking goggles developed by scientists at the Department of Clinical Neuropathy, which have cameras on the front, a simplified and personalized light display behind the lenses, and hook up to a smartphone in the patient’s pocket to provide the processing power. (Note: The tech works just as well on people who don’t look exactly like Moby.)

The idea isn’t far from some of the advanced augmented reality systems we’ve seen developed: The cameras observe the scene in front of the wearer, and process the images to detect things like obstacles, people, and roads, making judgments about how far away things are. The simple LED light-based display, which accesses what parts of the patient’s vision remain, then is updated in real time to aid with navigation and interaction with people. The display could even be see-through from an outsider’s point of view, which aids in interpersonal relations thanks to the power of eye contact.

The notion is incredibly clever, and highly possible using today’s tech. With enhancements, the camera’s sensors could even recognize more sophisticated data like barcodes or text (with real-time text recognition connected to real-time speech synthesis for direct feedback). That would be possible using technology we’ve seen developed in several just-for-fun iPhone apps, but when used in these applications could enable patients to shop, navigate, or easily interact with an ATM.

For now they’re prototypes, but there’s a chunk of funding from the National Institute of Health Research to do a feasibility study and the team reckons the device could cost as little as £500–compared to the £25,000-plus needed to train a guide dog.

[Image: Flickr user smerikal]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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