MEDICINE

Seeing the light: smart glasses help boost sight of visually impaired

Camerassense objects and then process that information into bright light on a screen, giving wearers the confidence to navigate obstacles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 September, 2014, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 9:47am
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But for what he calls "super luck", Stephen Hicks could easily have found himself lugging plasma TV screens up the staircases of apartment buildings.

As it turned out, the Australian scientist, who was in need of money in 2007, landed a job that was the first step in the creation of elaborate "smart glasses", which have the potential of giving those with sight loss the chance to recognise everyday objects and people again.

The glasses use a combination of cameras to sense objects such as tables and walls as well as people, and then process that information into bright light on a screen. The person with impaired sight can use what is left of their vision to understand what is in front of them and navigate their surroundings.

Hicks and his colleagues at Britain's Oxford University recently won a £500,000 (HK$6.4 million) grant to expand the project and they will now create 100 pairs of the glasses to test on people with sight loss, in their homes. They aim to bring smart glasses to market at the end of next year.

It is the culmination of a life interest in neuroscience for Hicks, who was led back to his passion for investigating how technology and the brain can work together when researching Huntington's disease about seven years ago.

The latest prototype of his work uses two cameras and a laser to identify objects and then relay that information to a computer, which displays the objects on the glasses in very simplified form - detailed bright shapes. Users can see the objects using their residual vision, which typically is limited to perceptions of light and motion.

In effect, the wearer sees a reduced version of the world without colour, where objects that are closer are much brighter. When people, bus stops and cars are further away they get darker.

When he began the research, Hicks found that most people classified as blind still had some vision. "I didn't realise that blindness was this continuum. In hindsight of course it is, it is the same as deafness: you can get people who are profoundly deaf, but the majority of people who are using hearing aids really just need it amplified."

The technology is aimed at allowing those with partial sight to navigate around the environment with much greater ease.

In one of the early tests, a man was able to see his guide dog for the first time. "Then we saw the power of what this could potentially mean to someone when it becomes more generally used," said Hicks.

Some light perception is needed; the glasses can be calibrated to sensitivity. "Nearby things are going to get brighter so put your hand in front and wave it and you will see it. You will be able to build up hand-eye coordination. You will be able to walk around unfamiliar environments, especially at night and get a good idea about obstacles - where gutters are, where overhanging branches are - giving you confidence to walk down unfamiliar streets and be able to avoid bollards and buggies."

Lyn Oliver, 70, from Faringdon, Oxfordshire, has joined the trials. She says she can see structures from almost two metres away, as well as ceiling beams and doorways. She became unable to read print in 1970 and started using a guide dog three years later. "It will be less stress," she said. "Because I live in a market town there is [a danger of] walking into hedges and low branches and things parked over the path."

Hicks quotes figures from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) which revealed that less than half of people who were severely sight-impaired tended to leave their home on any one day because of the dangers of running into objects.

The £500,000 for the project came from the Google Impact Challenge, a scheme to fund charities using technology to aid people. The glasses will be tested at home by 1,000 people. A spinoff company owned by the RNIB, Oxford University and the device creators is planned.

Hicks aims to have the first sets of glasses for sale by the end of next year, priced at £300 to £400, but said they would not immediately eradicate the need for aids such as white sticks.

"It is more important for me to have lots of these in people's hands rather than a few for people who can afford it. If you can do mobile phones for that kind of price, I don't see why we can't replicate that with our own commercial approach," he said.