How AR Glasses Could Benefit The Blind
When we think about AR glasses, we mostly think of them as smart glasses that can view our real-world environment and then super-impose data, information, and enhanced images about objects we are seeing in and around us.
In a private discussion with Tim Cook at a WWDC event a few years back, he told me that AR was one of Apple’s most important technologies they were working on and could have a dramatic impact on our world.
At the time, I thought Apple’s focus on AR was at the broadest levels and gave little thought to its potential impact in health-related areas too.
However, since that time, Apple has made health a greater priority when creating new products and services, especially ones related to the iPhone and Apple Watch. It stands to reason that this focus on health may be played out on Apple AR glasses if they should ever see the light of day.
The one area I would like to see Apple fine-tune in any AR glasses they bring to the market would be for use by people who are sight-impaired or blind.
The plight of the blind was something I grew up with as a child. My maternal grandmother went blind in the late 1930s. When I was growing up, she lived with us until I was seven years old.
When I was six years old, my aunt, who was my grandmother’s caretaker, had me put on a blindfold and spend part of a morning with her in complete darkness. Her goal was to help me understand my grandmother’s blindness and what she had been dealing with since glaucoma took her sight away in her early 30’s.
My three hours of total darkness at this young age that replicated my grandmother’s condition, had a major impact on me and my empathy for the blind.
Over the years I have followed many advances in technology that could help those that are partially or completely blind live a more normal life. Using technology to impact the blind goes back decades. In the 1960s when I was a child, my grandmother’s major source of relief came from a service called Audio Books for the Blind, which were on vinyl records. Each week, two new LP records with a recording of books would come to the house and she would sit in a dark room and listen to them most of her day.
For those that are vision impaired, there have been creative ways for them to use PCs, and even for the blind, there are refreshable braille displays as well as keyboards with braille on the keys. The Mac OS and Windows also have software built in that make a PC more accessible for these users.
There is a great website called Everyday Sight that is a wonderful resource about technologies and products that the sight-impaired can utilize, along with great software designed just for this audience.
More recently, companies who have created smart glasses are using AI to look at images and then translate those images into words and descriptions that a blind person can understand even if they cannot see those images.
Envision has smart glasses that provide this type of feature. It can scan text and read it back. It can look at a scene and describe it. It can even do face recognition for help in identifying with whom a blind person is talking. They use the newest version of Google glasses and provide custom software to make these glasses ideal for these users.
Another company that I have followed for some time is OrCam. Their camera can clip on to existing glasses and one of their new products, called OrCam MyEye can read text, recognize faces, identify objects in one’s surroundings, recognize money, identify products and even identify colors.
The newest feature has smart reading. It allows a person to ask the device to read the specific text a person wants to hear- things like headlines, specific menu items, and more. These types of smart glasses are great tools for the visually impaired or blind today, and for those who use them, the increased ease of everyday tasks has improved their lives.
The next big technology leap for the blind will most likely come with the introduction of AR glasses. Because of their designs, which will include more computing power, better cameras, and more advanced software, along with AI and more powerful mapping systems, they could give the partially or completely blind people even greater freedom and help them have a much richer life.
It could make it easier for a non-sighted person to go out to take a walk. The AR glasses become their eyes and give them information around them. The mapping software, with camera assist, could tell them when to stop at a traffic light and tell them when the light is green so they can proceed. It would give them turn by-by-turn directions all the while monitoring the conditions around them. It could even alert them about curb steps and give them greater guidance when out and about.
None of these advances will make guide dogs obsolete. But AR glasses could bring a new dimension for gaining more independence for those with impaired vision.
I believe that AR glasses hold the greatest promise for helping the visually challenged have a better life experience. It will take real innovation on part of the makers of AR glasses and their software platforms, as well a concentrated effort and advancement by software developers who create products for this audience that can build great apps on new AR glasses platforms.
As I looked at the examples above, as well as into my crystal ball for AR glasses, I could not help but wonder how different my grandmother’s life would have been had this technology been available to her back then.
For the sake of those who are challenged each day by blindness and impaired vision, I hope the innovators working on AR glasses focus on enhanced vision as a part of their strategy so that these folks can experience enriched lives in the near future.
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