Seeing the light: smart glasses boost vision for partially sighted people
Dr Stephen Hicks, research fellow in neuroscience at Oxford University, with his smart glasses, which enhance any remaining sight to help visually impaired people perceive objects.
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".
The claim for the smart glasses is that they 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 in Oxford recently won a £500,000 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. Things don't fall off, they fade away."
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. "A guy had seen his guide dog and said, 'there you are, girl'. 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 be able to see it. You will be able to build up hand-eye coordination. You will be able to walk around unfamiliar environments, especially at nighttime and get a good idea about obstacles – where gutters are, where overhanging branches are – giving you that 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 bone 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 walking into hedges and low branches and things parked over the path. It will make a lot of difference to a lot of people and give them that little bit of normality, the confidence of walking out."
Giving that renewed sense of confidence to people with limited sight is a key benefit, according to Hicks. He 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 RNIB has been working with Hicks and Oxford University to develop the glasses.
"We are excited about the potential these glasses have to improve the way blind and partially sighted people go about their everyday lives – walking down busy streets, visiting the shops, watching out for obstacles – simple tasks like this could be made much easier," said the RNIB's Neil Heslop.
The glasses have got smaller since initial tests involved augmented ski goggles with banks of screens, but they are still chunky and pronounced. The makers aim to slim them down further until they are as unobtrusive as possible, with the potential of retrofitting normal glasses with the technology.
The £500,000 for the project came from the Google Impact Challenge, a scheme to fund charities using technology to aid people. The 100 pairs of the glasses being developed will be tested at home by 1,000 people. A spinoff company owned by the RNIB, Oxford University and the device creators is planned to commercialise the invention.
Hicks aims to have the first sets of glasses for sale by the end of next year, priced at £300-£400, but said they would not immediately eradicate the need for aids such as white sticks, which alert people to the fact that someone is visually impaired.
"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.