According to the World Health Organization, there are around 285 million people worldwide that are visually impaired. Out of this population, 39 million are profoundly or totally blind while the remaining 246 million are either legally blind (visual acuity of 20/200) or have low vision (moderate to severe impairment). In the US alone, there are 10 million people who have a visual impairment.
For the visually impaired, there are available assistive technologies that can help them gain a certain level of sight perception. Braille devices, screen readers and video magnifiers are the staple ones however, hi-tech gadgets like smart glasses continue gaining prominence. And one company, the Toronto-based eSight, is at the forefront of the up and coming smart glass technology.
The company was founded in 2006 by Conrad Lewis, an engineer whose two sisters are legally blind. Communications director Jeffrey Fenton said that eSight is “backed by tens of millions of dollars,” and that there are “thousands of stories that showcase” people using eSight.
An eSight headset looks like that visor worn by the blind character Geordi La Forge from the Star Trek fictional series. The third generation model, fittingly named “eSight3”, was released early this year and can magnify a video feed by up to 24x. The device has a hand control for adjusting brightness, color, magnification and contrast. Though it’s going to fit over the wearer’s prescription glasses via elastic, magnetic bands, the headset can be a bit unwieldy but obviously this is a non-issue for someone who’s visually impaired.
How does an eSight work? The front image is recorded by the glass’ hi-def camera, processed by the glass’ computer and then displayed on two small screens in front of the wearer’s eyes. The video is displayed in such a way that it is beamed to the wearer’s peripheral vision. For most visually impaired people, the peripheral vision remains intact while the central vision gets degraded.
The eSight smart glasses, however, are not a complete solution for all visually impaired people; they only work for patients with low vision, those who are legally blind or whose visual acuity lies between 20/70 to 20/1200 (worldwide, these categories represent 85% of the visually impaired population). The classification also includes patients who suffer disabling eye conditions like macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, ocular albinism, Stargardt’s disease and optic nerve hypoplasia.
The testimonials from eSight users are mainly positive. They are mostly happy that they can now see faces and objects they couldn’t recognize before. The eSight headset can be worn by children and adults when playing sports, reading books and street signs, or perform mundane tasks at home. There have been recorded also cases of some eSight users who can now travel without being accompanied.
While there’s growing excitement over owning eSight’s products, there are barriers before the technology can be fully adopted. Evaluations are underway for safety and effectiveness but the biggest issue here lies in the price tag of the smart glasses. The technology itself is not cheap; a single headset costs $10,000 (that is $5,000 lower than the previous model). Moreover, insurers, as is always the case, are not jumping to cover the costs as these glasses are classified under “assistive technology”, similar to hearing aids for the hearing impaired.
“The technology becoming available is phenomenal, and most people won’t be able to get their hands on it,” said Mindy Jacobsen, first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of New York. Fenton added, “There’s still a major group of people out there who want but cannot afford the technology.”
Aira, a competitor of eSight, has a different scheme of payment; the user must subscribe to a monthly plan to enjoy the company’s technology which utilizes Google Glass to connect a wearer to an online visual interpreter, who in turn sees what the user sees in real time. The basic monthly plan of Aira costs $89, which comes with 100 minutes on the phone with an agent, while the unlimited plan costs $329. If you take a look at how these monthly plans compare with the one-time purchase of an eSight headset, eSight’s offering appears to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Aira and eSight are not the only companies trying to capture this market. Jerusalem-based Orcam and ThirdEye offer different types of smart glasses that can “read” visual images and convert them into audio feedback. NuEye is another company which has a technology that is similar to that of eSight.
In the end, eSight thinks that companies and governments should share in the expense if they want to employ qualified persons with visual impairments. “We continue to believe that society could and should provide this to the blind at low or no cost,” said Fenton.