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Bionic Vision for the Blind

How eyeglasses equipped with cameras, LED lights, and a smart-phone-sized processor could help the blind to see.
July 26, 2011

Blindness isn’t a binary thing. For many people, it’s a matter of vision impairment—even if that impairment is severe. What if there were a way, though, to somehow translate all the complex, nuanced data in a person’s field of vision and reduce it to something that even someone with severe visual impairment could process? A clinical neurologist at Oxford, Stephen Hicks, is working on just that question. The demonstration on his bionic glasses—which include tiny cameras and LED-embedded lenses—was a hit at the Royal Society’s recent Summer Science Exhibition.

“The types of poor vision we are talking about are where you might be able to see your own hand moving in front of you, but you can’t define the fingers,” Hicks recently explained. How could you ever render the visible world useful for such a person? Here’s Hicks’s vision (so to speak). A pair of glasses would feature tiny cameras on the frames; those cameras would send a live feed to a small pocket computer (like a smart phone), which would extract information from the image—for instance, whether a person or object is nearby, and at what distance. This information can then be translated into a little light show using LED lights embedded on the inside of the lenses. Different light patterns, colors, and intensities might mean different things—a series of dim red lights might indicate a person in the distance, and as the person comes closer, those lights would glow brighter. As relevant technology progresses, the glasses could also do things like scan headlines or read barcodes to retrieve prices.

Hicks estimates that such glasses could be made for about $800. To train a seeing-eye dog, meanwhile, says Hicks, can cost something like 40 or 50 grand.

But that seems, of course, like comparing apples and oranges (or, more to the point, like comparing canines and eyewear). It would be interesting to know how members in the blind community—those who are visually impaired and their advocates—are responding to the design for the device. While it doesn’t seem like a replacement for a seeing-eye dog yet, it does seem like it could be affordable and quite useful. Though still in prototype stage, the bionic glasses project has funding from England’s National Institute for Health Research, meaning actual people with visual impairment could be piloting a few of these tricked-out lenses as soon as this year.

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