A pair of bionic glasses may soon be able to help people with impaired vision see again and become more independent, British researchers say.
With the help of technology found in smartphones and game consoles, researchers at Oxford University are in the process of developing a pair of “smart” glasses that detect objects and display them on lenses.
Their work has recently garnered the 2013 Brian Mercer Award for Innovation from the Royal Society, which will help fund the research.
The glasses, which resemble regular spectacles, have two small cameras mounted into the frame and a translucent display that shows an overlay of the environment. The display is generated by a small processor located in the glasses.
Video: British researchers invent 'smart glasses' to help the visually impaired
“What the user actually sees is a slightly reduced version of the world that we normally see,” researcher and award winner Dr Stephen Hicks explained in a video for the Royal Society. "Rather than showing colour and textures and great distances, we are really only showing the nearby things."
Rather than focusing on "fixing" the eyesight of a visually impaired viewer, the technology is instead best described as an enhancement of the wearer’s vision.
According to Dr Hicks, the cameras on the glasses will highlight what humans consider “most important” visually. Instead of generating an image of the object, the camera will detect the distance the object is from the viewer, and translate this distance into brightness. In short, the closer a perceived obstacle is, the brighter it will appear to the wearer.
Currently, the smart glasses being developed by Dr Hicks’ team do not provide any additional information about the nature of the objects highlighted by the glasses.
In the future, Dr Hicks and his team hope that the current glasses system will be enhanced through the implementation of software which will help wearers recognise and identify actual objects, such as bus stops, doorways and personal items, as opposed to simply noting them as obstacles.
Additionally, Dr Hicks’ and his team are also developing technology to feed wearers information through headphones, using text-to speech software.
“The latest research enables computers to not only see single objects like faces and words but understand whole scenes,” Dr Hicks said in a statement after winning the Royal Society's Brian Mercer Award. “This...award will allow us to incorporate this research into our glasses to help sight-impaired people deal with everyday situations much more easily.”
Blindness and visual impairment affect people in different degrees. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) identifies four levels of visual impairment: normal vision, moderate visual impairment, severe visual impairment and blindness.
Moderate visual impairment and severe visual impairment can be coupled together under the term “low vision”. People who suffer from low vision may find everyday activities - such as reading, writing, cooking and shopping – to be challenging even after regular corrective lenses.
The glasses developed by Dr Hicks’ team are aimed at visually impaired individuals who still retain the ability to detect some light.
Statistics released by the Census department in December 2008 indicated that there are 122,600 persons with impaired vision in Hong Kong. Of the people who reported having difficulty seeing, 9,600 said that they required a specialised visual aid to see well.