What the promise of smart glasses means for the visually impaired

25 March 2019 (Last Updated March 26th, 2019 10:35)

A study by the University of Oxford concluded that low vision patients using their smart glasses had improved independent mobility.

What the promise of smart glasses means for the visually impaired

Over the past few years, there has been increasing interest in smart glasses. Companies such as Google have released its Google Glass, which allows users to receive information similar to a smartphone, right in front of their eyes.

The future of smart glasses

While this type of technology might seem like a luxury for most people, it is worth asking: can smart glasses be used to improve the lives of visually impaired individuals? The idea of restoring sight might have once seemed like science fiction, but thanks to smart glasses, this is now becoming reality.

Exact numbers are hard to come by but according to the US National Federation of the Blind, over 7 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, while according to the World Health Organization there are 285 million visually impaired individuals worldwide. In the US, people who are considered legally blind have central visual acuity less than 20/200 in the better eye with the best possible correction.

While a Phase I clinical study recently published in Nature Biotechnology has reported a therapy to improve sight in two visually impaired patients, the procedure is likely years away from becoming standard practice. How can smart glasses be used in the meantime to help the millions of people with visual impairments?

Future of smart glasses: eSight, NuEyes and Aira

Companies such as eSight have engineered smart glasses for the visually impaired that use high-definition cameras to record and transmit footage in real-time to screens within the glasses located very close to the users’ eyes. The compact design of eSight’s smart glasses allows visually impaired people to see without a reduction in mobility.

NuEyes also produces electronic, lightweight smart glasses that use magnifiers and virtual reality to enhance the visual experience of the user. Other companies such as Aira combine smart glasses with a live help-support experience for users. Aira’s product has a camera located on the smart glasses that sends live video streams to their centre, where trained agents can watch and accurately answer questions about the user’s environment.

To validate the utility of smart glasses for visually impaired individuals, research by Dr Stephen Hicks at the University of Oxford set out to determine if the mobility of people with low vision and registered as blind could be improved.

Dr Hicks and colleagues created smart glasses with a camera and displays to present information about the distance of obstacles to the wearers. The glasses are also able to increase the brightness of obstacles. Indeed, Dr Hicks’ team concluded that low vision patients using their smart glasses had improved independent mobility. These findings were published in the Journal of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

Future of smart glasses: the price tag

Currently, one of the main barriers to accessing these vision-enhancing smart glasses is the cost. eSight initially listed their product at around $10,000 but has recently reduced the cost to $6,000. The lowest price for Aira’s most basic service package starts at around $29 a month. Unlike other types of medical devices, vision-enhancing devices are often not covered by insurance. This puts the financial burden on the user, which will likely prevent the widespread use of smart glasses for now.