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The New Technology Designed To Assist The Blind

From sight restoration to everyday direction, we took a look at the tech improving the lives of the blind

19May

It seems not a week passes without an advancement in wearable technology making headlines. From fitness trackers to smartwatches to more obscure wearable devices, the world has become fascinated with the prospect of being adorned and augmented by connected devices, all of which are aimed to improve the wearer’s lifestyle.

Wearable tech has made by far its most dramatic impact in the world of fitness. Fitness trackers have exploded in popularity over the last few years, as people look to quantify their daily activity so that they might make lifestyle and fitness decisions based on data. Sports, too, has seen widespread adoption of tracking devices, but applications elsewhere are starting to be properly realized. We took a look at the top disability aids to come out of the wearable tech explosion, designed to make the lives of the blind and visually impaired easier.

Toyota’s Blaid

In March this year, Toyota released a website and a promotional video introducing their new Blaid technology, designed to give the blind or visually impaired more independence in their daily activities. Worn on the shoulder, Blaid uses cameras to assess the wearer’s surroundings - ’objects, including signage… restrooms, escalators, stairs, elevators, doors, exit signs, and familiar storefront logos - and can direct the user with speakers and vibration.

The wearer can interact with the device using voice recognition and buttons, and Bluetooth technology will soon pair the BLAID with smartphones for added functionality. Beta testing begins soon for the wearable, but Toyota hopes it will allow the blind and visually impaired to ‘move freely and safely.’

eSight

Without a doubt the most emotive product out there, eSight allows even the legally blind to see in full again. The headset presents a live video stream directly in front of the user’s eyes through an LED display. The user can adapt the stream’s brightness, contrast, color, etc., for optimum vision, and can zoom the HD display up to 14 times.

The technology requires at least partial sight, and the $15,000 price tag will hold it back from becoming a common piece of tech. But eSight does present an exciting opportunity for the partially sighted to experience full sight, and the company offers to help create individual fundraising campaigns for those interested in eSight without the means to pay for it.

Wearable tech in running

Earlier this year, blind runner Simon Wheatcroft began working with IBM’s Bluemix Garage to create an app designed for visually impaired runners, feeling existing apps weren’t entirely suited.

Key issues, like inaccurate GPS systems and distracting navigation software, have been tackled by IBM, who’ve paired the app with a more accurate external GPS receiver that gives directions to the nearest five meters, as opposed to 10 or 20 with most consumer devices. Full-sentence navigation has given way to soft beeps, which sound with increasing frequency if the runner strays off course. Wheatcroft is working with IBM to add further capabilities, like AI that can scan the runner’s surroundings and offer dynamic directions based on the obstacles ahead.

Machine learning and ‘seeing’ apps

During Microsoft’s Build 2016 conference, perhaps the most impactful video shown introduced glasses and AI that helped one of its blind developers to ‘see’ his surroundings. Seeing AI, used and introduced by Microsoft’s own Sadie Sheikh, utilizes Microsoft’s intelligence AI as well as its facial recognition tool to give the wearer a more complete picture of their surroundings. Glasses, which are connected to a smartphone app, can determine the approximate age of people facing the wearer, as well as their expressions.

The user’s smartphone camera can also be used to read a menu, for example, when a braille equivalent isn’t available. Seeing AI isn’t so much of a guiding tech as a social one; the ability to judge the reactions of others in conversation, and have one’s surroundings described, could seriously enrich how the blind interact with the world. 

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