Low-Vision Apps, Devices, and Virtual Assistants Expand the View for the Visually Impaired
December 6, 2021
Originally posted on Everyday Health
By Susan K. Treiman
As the crest of the baby boom crashes into old age, hundreds, possibly thousands, of assistive programs, devices, and smartphone applications are poised help those likely to face some degree of age-related vision loss.
By mid-century, that population is forecast to reach 22 million, double the current population diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), once the biggest cause of blindness. Recent breakthroughs ensure that fewer people will be left entirely without sight. Meanwhile, those with some limitations will be able to choose from a dizzying array of applications, innovations, devices, and virtual assistants designed to help them literally see a brighter future.
“Advances in facial recognition, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and other technologies, even in the last few years alone, have been repurposed to tangibly improve the lives of the visually impaired,” says Cal Roberts, MD, a clinical professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College and the president and CEO of Lighthouse Guild in New York City.
Technology is essential to that turnaround, usually beginning at home with a laptop or smartphone. Apple maintains resources for the visually impaired online, while Microsoft lists its accessibility features on its website. But the number of helpful aids goes far beyond those two operating systems.
This tip-of-the-iceberg survey includes current helpmates and some that are still on the research bench, with resources listed first by function and then by the smartphone operating systems many of them work with.
When a condition such as advanced or “wet” macular degeneration steals the central portion of their vision, patients must compensate by using their peripheral vision. Seeing a face, driving a car, reading a price tag — it all becomes challenging, if not impossible. These wearables aim to change that.
- Eyedaptic glasses — Created to compensate for central vision loss, these glasses use special lenses that magnify and project the full visual field onto an unscathed portion of the retina, simulating full-field vision. Some wearers have reported seeing their loved ones’ faces for the first time in years, and being empowered to read, watch television, and cook without relying on “side vision.” They cost $2,000 to $6,000.
- eSight glasses — By projecting images onto high-resolution screens (one per eye), these modified glasses deliver full binocular vision. Rechargeable, they typically function for at least three hours on a single charge. The price starts around $3,000 for a basic pair.
- IrisVision — Pairing the Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone with stylish, sunglass-style spectacles, IrisVision is designed to simulate a full visual view by filling in missing areas of sight. The GearVR device is offered with custom software for about $2,500.
- Vision Buddy — A low-vision assistant, it uses the power of telescoping magnification to zoom in on anything from a television program to printed material. The device combines a 16 megapixel digital magnifier with an optical character recognition (OCR) feature. Worn over the eyes, it resembles a souped-up stereoscopic viewer and sells for just under $3,000.
Smart Canes and Wearables
Canes provide essential feedback about immediate surroundings, helping people navigate around obstacles and anticipate changes. The newest versions add powerful capabilities to the traditional white cane “tap tap tap” by combining audible feedback with vibration and touch. Here are some examples.
- Canetroller — A virtual reality device pioneered by the Microsoft Research Lab, this “smart cane” incorporates a wearable harness with a brake mechanism to warn of approaching obstacles or a change in walking surface. It vibrates to alert the wearer to upcoming threats, and its 3D auditory feedback simulates the sound of tapping. The system, still being refined, is not yet available.
- WeWalk Smart Cane — This attachable handle, affixed to a cane and paired with a smartphone, warns of hazards through vibrations, while also offering spoken navigational cues and information about public transportation schedules, nearby stores or landmarks, and other important sites. It sells for about $600.
- Sunu Band — Warn like a wristwatch, Sunu vibrates when an object or person comes too close. Meant to provide extra protection to the head and upper body, which can be left vulnerable while using a cane or seeing-eye dog, Sunu can be purchased for just under $600, not including an accompanying premium monthly subscription.
- BuzzClip — Snapped onto the user’s outerwear, this hockey-puck-size device maps surroundings through ultrasound, informing the wearer through vibrations that can give an essential heads-up to approaching danger. It was designed to fill in the assessment gaps even the most vigilant guard dog or the most practiced cane-user has, thus minimizing the chance of a collision with a low tree branch, protruding sign, or any other threat to the upper body. BuzzClip is available for under $300.
- Feel the View — Still in early development, this pioneering AI-based technology for side car windows uses touch and enhanced imagery to capture the view outside. The Ford Motor Company innovation embeds a high-contrast monochrome view of the outside into a specially prepared portion of the window that depicts the scene in braille and through vibrations, with the strongest sensations accompanying the darkest portions of the view. The technology is still in the experimental phase but can be seen in a Ford video.
Talking Navigation Aids
The visually challenged can’t hear a doorway, anticipate a flight of stairs, or duck below a hanging power line, but a growing number of devices can help make up for these gaps. Each “talks” the user through and around potential trouble spots. Here are a few representative products among the many available.
- Supersense (iOS, $49) — Developed by Mediate, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spinoff AI start-up, this $49 smartphone application harnesses AI technology to identify and describe objects seen through a smartphone camera. It can also read texts, handwriting, and words that accompany cellphone images. The application, which doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection, is downloadable from the Apple store or Google Play.
- BlindSquare (iOS, $39.99) — Billing itself as the world’s most widely used accessible GPS application, the support system offers a selection of voices and languages to narrate the user’s surroundings. It can announce points of interest, warn of upcoming intersections, and talk people through their journey.
- NavCog — This still-evolving open-source application emerged from a partnership between IBM and MIT to safely guide the visually impaired within buildings. Using a novel algorithm that combines Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacons with smartphone sensors, it’s been tested in specially equipped public places in Japan and Pittsburgh, where it discreetly whispers directions to its users. No pricing is available yet.
- TapTapSee — names items in iPhone pictures, while Seeing AI, another iOS application, reads handwriting, currency denominations, and names objects and text aloud. So, too, does LookTel (iOS, $9.99), which instantly identifies paper money denominations.
- Live help:
- Be My Eyes is a free application for smartphones that goes old school, connecting low-vision individuals with sighted volunteers at the other end of a live video call. The sighted partner talks the user through daily tasks, from reading signs to navigating technology. Be My Eyes is accessible in more than 150 countries worldwide, can speak in more than 180 languages, and draws from a community exceeding five million volunteers.
- Aira is on Android and iOS for $29 to $199 monthly. The premium product connects users with trained agents who can assist with mobility, personal finance chores, and other daily tasks. The service is also offered free-of-charge in some airports, at selected tourist sites, and at some retailers and universities.
- Other, similar applications include RightHear, Lookout, Soundscape, Lazarillo, and Nearby Explorer.
Countless devices and applications help the visually impaired hear what they can’t see on the printed page. Examples include the following:
- OrCam MyEye — Among the most widely used of OrCam products, MyEye reads text aloud. The flashlight-size device can be adjusted to capture an entire page, a small portion of text, or the results of a specific search. It achieves precision focus by using two lasers and linking with an online or off-line Bluetooth device. Prices start at just under $2,000 and increase to $3,700 for the pro version.
- MD_evReader — This application displays e-book magnified text news ticker-style and is particularly appropriate for those trained in Eccentric Viewing, a method of looking around a blind spot to see. It also works for those practiced in other “steady-eye” strategies (similar training that prepares users to recruit healthy portions of their vision to compensate for damaged segments). The application and its related new content viewer are currently free of charge.
- Orbit Reader — For those who still prefer to read and write in braille, this device is paired with a smartphone camera to translate scanned text into braille. The information is transmitted to a touchable braille pad. It can also be used to write in braille. The device sells for about $1,500.
The first known magnifying glass was used in 1268 and still works for some tasks. These new versions take the original concept further.
- Brighter and Bigger (Android and iOS, free) — The device is a kind of reading-glasses tool designed to assist people with low-vision problems to comfortably read by increasing magnification up to 20 times, sharpening type, and brightening images. It can also be used as a monocle to see distant objects clearly and employs a “tilted angle correction” to straighten images seen at an angle.
- Optelec Compact 10 — About the size of a laptop, this magnifier uses three HD cameras to provide enlarged, clear images of text, the words on a computer screen, or information at a distance: the writing on the blackboard in a lecture hall, for example.
Smartphone Applications by Operating System
For most of the visually challenged populations, smartphones have become essential survival tools. Here you can find some of the services and products mentioned earlier, listed by their operating systems, as well as some additional applications not previously highlighted.
Most major cellphone providers offer some specific products and discounts to low-vision consumers, while accessible cellphones tailored to low-vision needs are becoming increasingly popular. For additional information on any of the products below, contact:
- Apple accessibility information online or by calling 877-204-3930.
- Microsoft Accessibility, with tutorials found on its website or by calling 800-936-5900.
With the number of applications increasing constantly, it’s wise to check out websites often. This list offers a starting point.
For the iPhone OS:
- VoiceOver is a screen reader that provides a description of everything happening on your screen.
- Light Detector points out light sources and whether they are on.
- Soundscape describes surroundings with voice narration sent to linked stereo headphones.
- RightHear provides spoken navigation and points of interest.
- Blind Bargains (Android and iOS, free of charge) allows you to search the web to identify the hottest deals available on talking products, braille printers, accessible gadgets, and other resources for the visually impaired.
For the Android OS:
- TalkBack is a built-in screen reader.
- Google Assistant offers voice commands for basic tasks.
- Lookout reads texts and describes people and objects using the phone’s camera and sensors.
- TapTapSee names items in iPhone pictures.
- The MD evReader (Android and iOS, free) presents text from eBooks in a scroll across the screen, similar to a news ticker. The app is designed for people who use eccentric viewing (EV) or steady-eye strategies for reading.
- Be My Eyes connects callers with volunteers who can help them troubleshoot by identifying objects, assisting with directions, or providing advice to help complete other daily tasks.
- Lazarillo guides users through outside and indoor environments with real-time voice messages, also connecting them with accessible online shopping and notification services.
- Supersense ($5 monthly to $99 lifetime subscription) scans and describes objects in the immediate environment and reads documents, currency denominations, and barcodes. It also imports pdfs, unlike many others, and allows users to request a call for help.
- Sullivan+ uses artificial intelligence to support face, text, and image recognition for owners of android 5.0 or later phones.
Audiobooks and Narrated Readers
- American Printing House for the Blind Juno magnifier, $1,295.
- Audible (Android and iOS, $14.95 per month) narrates books, magazines, newspapers, and related material.
- Audio Bibles for the Blind
- BARD Mobile (Android and iOS, free) offers narrated books for enrollees at the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Print Disabled at the Library of Congress.
- Blind Abilities (Android and iOS, free) presents blogs and podcasts covering accessibility, technologies, devices, and job opportunities for the blind and visually impaired.
- Bookshare (Android and iOS, $50 per year) is an accessible online library with collections of audio, braille, and e-book titles that can be read on your computer, tablet, smartphone, or assistive device.
- Choice Magazine Listening presents quarterly issues of recorded magazine selections, unabridged. Call 888-724-6423.
- Independent Living Aids 800-537-2118
- KNFB Reader (Android and iOS, $99.99) reads text on iPhone images. It also converts visual information to braille.
- Learning Sight & Sound (LS&S) 800-468-4789
- MaxiAids 800-522-6294
- National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) provides books and a player free of charge. Call 888-657-7323.
- New York Times Large Print Weekly 800-631-2580
- NFB-Newsline (iOS, free) is offered by the National Federation of the Blind to allow people with print disabilities to phone in and listen to newspapers, magazines, and other news sources.
- Overdrive (Android and iOS, free) allows you to borrow both audio and text e-books through your library or school, often through the Libby.
- American Foundation for the Blind 212-502-7633
- American Macular Degeneration Foundation 888-622-8527
- American Printing House for the Blind 800-223-1839
- Association for Macular Diseases/Ophthalmic Edge
- Lighthouse Guild 800-284-4422
- Macular Degeneration Association 855-962-2852
- Macular Degeneration Foundation 888-633-3937
- Macular Degeneration Partnership 888-430-9898
- MD Support list of support groups; 888-866-6148
- National Eye Health Education Program in English and Spanish, 301-496-5248
- National Federation of the Blind 410-659-9314 (toll call)