There are over 360,000 people in Britain alone who are partially sighted or registered legally blind. In the United States, this number rises astronomically to over 6.7 million people. And “legally blind” does not mean that these men, women and children are completely without vision; many are just suffering from severe vision problems like macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa or retinopathy.
“For most people, it’s a gradual continuum of sight loss,” explained Dr. Stephen Hicks, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “Naturally, no one really wants to tell everyone about their condition. Many people have reported that they’ve really embarrassed their friends by just walking past them. It’s hard to maintain relationships like that.”
Not being able to detect faces or expressions is just one of the problematic situations that visually impaired people experience. Almost four years ago he began designing his Smart Specs, a pair glasses that will help people with limited vision “see” their surroundings. He was interested in building his own product, something that looked like a regular pair of glasses—something that would be discreet, so that people wearing them wouldn’t be recognized as visually impaired.
Although Dr. Hicks and his team had created prototypes, they would be costly to produce, in regards to both time and money. They tried a lot of other augmented reality glasses on the market, but Epson’s first version of the Moverio glasses, the BT-100, won out.
“There were a lot of things I was looking for in a display that I found in the BT-100s. I wanted something really clear and transparent. I wanted people to use sight as they normally do, which meant they needed to be binocular,” said Dr. Hicks. “The characteristics of the display were great. Plus, the people we were testing it on preferred it to the other choices.”
Dr. Hicks and his team installed a depth camera, a combination of an infrared projector and an infrared camera, on top of the BT-100 using a custom 3-D printed frame. It projects a structured light pattern, and the camera interprets the patterns to find objects nearby. “It could be a wall, a desk or a person,” Dr. Hicks said. “They’re coded by brightness: If you’re very close, the objects become very bright. If they’re further away they become darker.”
Recently, Dr. Hicks and his team received funding from Google to take the latest Moverio version, the BT-200, and build on what they’ve already developed in order to start trials in 2015.
And so far, the glasses have been well received. “I’ve always liked augmented reality. I’ve always thought that it would obviously be an awesome thing,” said Dr. Hicks. “The fact that I can create something to help bring that about is incredibly satisfying.”
The Royal National Institute for the Blind feel that glasses could help over 150,000 legally blind people in the United Kingdom, as well as over 15 million people worldwide. See the Smart Specs in action in the two videos below: