Assistive technology to help those who are blind or severely sight impaired has, for several decades, been dogged by a number of critical issues.
Firstly, there has traditionally been an overwhelming emphasis on ICT tasks such as reading or using a computer, rather than helping those with vision loss better interpret real-world scenes.
Portability and convenience remain a second major problem and, even though many such issues have been significantly mitigated by the emergence of the smartphone over the past ten years, blind people have long been crying out for solutions that are more seamlessly integrated and wearable.
With this in mind, what is particularly notable about Envision’s AI-powered glasses, which were released across seven major international markets last month, including the U.S. and U.K., is that they are specifically designed for those with profound sight loss.
This is because, rather than seeking to enhance any remaining areas of vision, the glasses convey information to the wearer via speech output.
Of course, when it comes to simply reading text, be it near or at distance, the glasses and even surpass rival wearable solutions like the OrCam MyEye Pro, or Microsoft’s phone-based Seeing AI app, but offer so much more besides.
The device can provide audio scene descriptions, such as the presence of a tree and a park bench, recognize and announce the pre-programmed faces of friends and family and provides both color and object recognition – a lifesaver when scanning for that elusive TV remote!
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A new dimension in sighted guidance
What’s more, the Envision glasses have entirely revolutionized the practice of a blind individual receiving sighted guidance from another person through its bespoke “ally” app.
The system enables nominated friends and family, when called upon by the wearer, to remotely view what the glasses’ camera is pointing at. The interaction takes place over Wi-Fi or mobile data, meaning that assistance can be provided across continents if need be!
A similar service currently exists through the Be My Eyes mobile app but, as Envision’s Commercial Director Pierre Kegels explains, what Envision offers its users is also very different.
“Friends or family of someone who is blind can download a free app to their phone and then, that blind person can add people to their trusted contacts list. We refer to them as “Envisioners,” says Kegels.
He continues, “There are so many situations where a user might prefer to have the help of friends and family but with Be My Eyes, you are not calling friends and family, you are calling a volunteer, who could be anywhere in the world – a stranger.”
The provision of assistance is rendered further seamless through the use of the camera on the glasses themselves, rather than having to film with a smartphone.
Stuart Beveridge, a blind super-user of the glasses from Fife in Scotland, is effusive in his praise for the transformative effect the video calling feature has had on his life.
Addressing an online webinar earlier this month hosted by the U.K. distributor of the Envision glasses, Sight & Sound Technology, Beveridge said, “The video calling feature, for me, is what sets these glasses apart from any other wearable technology on the market.”
“The only thing that limits you with a video calling feature is your imagination because now, you have someone sighted who can see through the camera of your glasses on their own smartphone screen,” he continued.
By means of an example, Beveridge detailed a scenario to the audience of the webinar held over Zoom, “I recently called my sister who lives quite a long way away from me,” he began.
“She’s in Edinburgh and I’m in Fife. She could see everything through the camera on my glasses, whatever I was looking at. Between us, we managed to organize all the tins in my kitchen cupboard.”
Beveridge, who has no sight at all and uses a guide dog, added, “During these tough times of social distancing in shops, if there are too many people in front of you and you’re too close, you’ve got a trusted colleague or friend in your ear to tell you to stop and wait.”
Next-generation scanning and reading
During the webinar, Beveridge also waxed lyrical about the device’s Optical Character Recognition capabilities for processing text and spoke of his delight in being able to, for the first time ever, read a handwritten Christmas card from his neighbors.
Kegels puts this success down to the technical approach adopted by Envision AI.
“Our scan and read functions are cloud-based,” says Kegels.
“This makes the process much faster than doing it on-device. Of course, there is something to be said for doing it offline because then, you don’t require a WIFI connection but, in our opinion, most of the time, our users have their smartphone at hand.”
“Seeing” the need
Back in 2017, Envision was the brainchild of the company Co-founder and Chief Designer Karthik Mahadevan.
Undertaking a project investigating the access barriers faced by blind people for his Master’s Degree in Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Mahadevan came up with the Envision smartphone app.
The next stage was to put the technology into a pair of smart glasses.
As Kegels recounts, “The idea of putting the software into a pair of smart glasses was brought to us by our customers, who told us how nice it would be to have all this functionality but to be able to carry out activities hands-free at the same time.”
“A lot of blind people navigate with guide dogs or canes in their hand. Having to flip out a phone to accomplish all these tasks is far from ideal and we knew smart glasses would make things a great deal easier.”
Due to its sleek, comfortable form factor, exceptional processing power, open Android platform and the fact that Envision had already won an award for Best Accessibility Experience from Google Play in 2019, Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 proved to be the most obvious and natural fit for the hardware.
Priced at £2,695.00 in the U.K., the Envision glasses are certainly not cheap but with their unique functionality, remain more than competitive within a structurally inflated low vision device market.
In hitching its underlying software to technologies that can only expand exponentially in the next 5-10 years i.e. Artificial Intelligence and Optical Character Recognition, Envision have undoubtedly pitched their tent on solid ground.
The existence of hardware that is comfortable and aesthetically acceptable enough to wear all day is already in place. The company now need to continue to populate their database with as many new objects and scenes as possible to enable the AI engine to keep learning.
If the company succeeds in achieving this at their desired pace, then this device may begin to be justifiably viewed as a new way of “seeing” the world for those that stand to benefit the most.