eSight Eyewear and Smart Glasses from Assisted Vision

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Today we have a great little article for you;
eSight Eyewear and Smart Glasses from Assisted Vision

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A Dan Thompson contribution

eSight Eyewear and Smart Glasses from Assisted Vision

Bill Holton

During the past few years, the community of people with visual impairments
has become increasingly excited over the accessibility prospects and
possibilities of Google Glass, a pair of smart glasses that incorporates
cameras, a heads-up display, and a live data connection to enhance the
wearer’s ability to interact with his or her environment. What many are not
as familiar with, however, are the great strides that have already been made
by researchers focused on similar technologies and how they can be used to
assist people with visual impairments to navigate and interact with their
worlds on a footing more equal to that of their sighted contemporaries. This
article discusses two such efforts: A pair of smart glasses under
development by a team of researchers led by Oxford University’s Stephen
Hicks, and the digital eyewear, available for purchase as of October 2013,
from Ottawa-based eSight Corporation.

eSight Corporation

For nearly 30 years, Canadian electrical engineer Conrad Lewis has made a
point of keeping up with all the latest access technologies. His two sisters
Julia and Anne were both diagnosed in their 20s with Stargardt Disease, an
early onset form of macular degeneration. Prompted by their diagnoses,
Lewis–who began his professional career as a business executive and is now
a venture investor–began to bring home new gadgets and pieces of access
software he’d come across at trade shows and through his growing network of
professional connections.

In the middle of the last decade Lewis took note of the growing convergence
of mobile processing power and lightweight, high-resolution video displays.
Perhaps he could leverage this coming convergence into a workable product
that would enable his sisters to use their limited eyesight more

In 2007, Lewis founded eSight Corporation with the help of US and Canadian
angel investors, along with grants from various foundations and government
agencies. “Others had previously worked on head-mounted displays for the
visually impaired, but they were too large and heavy, and didn’t allow
people to be mobile–not at all what Conrad had in mind,” says Kevin Rankin,
president and CEO of eSight Corporation, where Conrad Lewis currently serves
as Chairman of the Board.

The device Lewis envisioned would also require much faster image processing
than was available at the time of the company’s founding. So he and his team
of engineers set about writing and optimizing software, testing and
customizing components, and building prototypes for two generations of
eSight glasses. They completed their first pre-production model in mid-2012,
and in October of 2013 began offering their eSight glasses for sale in the
US and Canada.

eSight Glasses: How They Work

eSight glasses are about the size of a pair of wraparound sunglasses. They
enable a user to magnify and view objects as close as 12 inches away and as
far away as an object across the room, across the street, or across a field.
A high-resolution video camera with zoom capabilities is built into the
bridge, and a cable runs from one of the earpieces down to a hip-carried
processing unit and power source. “The glasses are custom made using lenses
ground to the wearer’s own prescription,” says Rankin. “These lenses are
then overlaid with a transparent OLED (organic light emitting diode) display
that can be user adjusted to fill their entire field of view, or just the
upper portion, while allowing use of peripheral vision and awareness, and
most importantly mobility.” Think of a pair of bifocals, where the user can
choose between magnified and contrast enhanced or their regular vision for
any activity of daily living, depending on whether he or she focuses his or
her gaze through the upper or lower half of the lenses.

The eSight camera captures what’s ahead and sends it to the processing unit,
which is about the size of a large-screen smartphone and about twice as
thick. There the images are processed frame by frame in real time. “The unit
allows the user to adapt to their personal preferences and needs with two
easy-to-use dial controls, including an up to fourteen times zoom, contrast,
and various color adjustments to make the real-time image easier to see and
enjoy,” Rankin explains.

Lewis did not want his sisters and other users to have to constantly switch
back and forth between their standard prescription glasses and their eSight
digital eyewear. “The way we designed them, a wearer could rely on their own
prescription lenses to navigate their living room or other familiar
surroundings, switch to half screen mode with some magnification and
enhanced contrast to watch television, or choose a full-magnification,
full-screen mode to read a book with white letters on a black background,”
he says, adding, “eSight users are now sharing amazing stories of actually
seeing all of the important details while shopping, walking through
airports, being at school, and at work.”

One User’s Perspective

The eSight glasses went on sale last October, priced at $14,950. One of the
first purchasers was Yvonne Felix, who lives with her husband and their two
young sons in Hamilton, Ontario.

Yvonne was diagnosed at age 7 with Stargardt Disease. By 15 she could no
longer see the drawings filled with fairies and unicorns she loved to
create. “I’d have to finish them in a single sitting,” she recalls.
“Otherwise I’d lose my place.”

In high school teachers would not allow Yvonne to attend art class because
they didn’t know how to grade her work. They also discouraged her from
assembling a portfolio and applying to art college. When Yvonne was 25 she
applied, anyway, was accepted, and after graduation she became a community
artist with two public installations to her credit–a public conversation
area and a large magnifying glass that’s also a sundial.

Yvonne read about the glasses in a Foundation Fighting Blindness newsletter,
and purchased a pair with the help of a generous private donor and several
public fundraisers. “They brought them to my home to try,” she relates.
Yvonne did not wear prescription lenses, so her first test was using full
screen magnification. The results were startling. “The very first thing I
saw was my husband and my boys,” she remembers. “They were beautiful. They
looked just like I had always imagined.”

At the time, Yvonne was completing a painting for a charity auction–an
abstract depicting her blind spot. “When I saw it through the glasses, I
wanted to redo the entire canvas,” she says. “My mind’s eye and my new eyes
had a lot of getting to know each other to do.”

Yvonne’s vision was improved even more with the addition of prescription
lenses. “Sometimes it’s like my blind spot isn’t even there, anymore,” she
says. “I can see the dials on the oven, and these days when the house gets
dirty I notice it, which is a mixed blessing.”

Yvonne’s brother, William, also has Stargardt disease, and he is in the
process of getting a pair of eSight glasses for himself, too. Her elder son,
Noah, has also tried on Yvonne’s glasses. “To him it’s like a magic trick
that lets me read print books to him at night,” she says.

Smart Glasses from Assisted Vision

The benefits of eSight eyewear are limited mostly to people with partial
sight between 20/60 and 20/400. This leaves out a considerable swath of
individuals who have much lower visual acuity. Happily, a small team of
British researchers led by
Hicks, PhD, Research Fellow in Visual Prosthetics in the Nuffield Department
of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, are well on their way
to producing a different kind of device that could assist individuals with
useable vision, less than 20/400, to identify objects and more safely
explore and navigate their environment.

How Assisted Vision Smart Glasses Work

Like Conrad Lewis, Hicks also saw the benefit of working with off-the-shelf
technology. “It occurred to me an excellent starting point might be to pair
object recognition software with a heads-up display,” he explains.

In 2010 Hicks began working with LabVIEW, object recognition software from
National Instruments, which later gave him an award for innovative use of
their product. “Traffic signs were fairly easy to recognize, and they were
also easy to set up in a lab,” he says.

Hicks created signs the size of CD jewel cases and hung them on a wall about
4 meters–a bit more than 13 feet–from several individuals with vision less
than 20/600. “Without enhancement, none of the subjects could pick out the
signs,” he recounts. “We trained a video camera on the wall and used the
object recognition software to spot the sign. The image was processed and
enhanced, then projected onto the heads-up display of a gaming helmet. Every
one of the subjects could now see a patch of brightness in the direction of
the wall where the sign was located.”

Hick’s proof of concept model used a single video camera, so there was no
way to distinguish distant from nearby objects. In a happy happenstance,
however, it was about that time when Microsoft introduced Kinect, a gaming
device that creates a 3D map of a room and identifies game players, tracking
their movements and gestures. Kinect uses a single video camera, but it also
projects thousands of tiny infrared dots, and uses their reflections and a
complex set of algorithms to calculate depth, much like radar or sonar.

“With Kinect we could create a 3D map of objects up to 20 feet away,” says
Hicks. “But we now had too much information. We not only had to identify
objects, we had to figure out which objects were important and which were
just background.”

Hicks and his team solved the problem by taking a giant step backwards. “We
stopped trying to identify the objects,” he explains. “Instead of trying to
pick out that table three feet ahead and tagging it as a table, we began
simply presenting that table as an area of brightness, the closer the
brighter. Hicks also simplified the image by removing the far?away back
half, and adding enhanced contrast controls. “Often all it takes is a tiny
hint of where something fairly close is located to find a door or orient
yourself inside a room,” he says.

Hicks and his team continued to refine and improve their smart glasses. “We
didn’t want to replace anyone’s usable vision, we wanted to enhance it,”
Hicks says. Toward that end they assembled a different sort of heads-up
display using even more off-the-shelf technology. This new display projected
the visual enhancements onto a transparent OLED screen. The wearer can use
as much of his or her remaining sight as possible to identify that table,
helped along by the device’s brightness, contrast and edge enhancements.
“Hold a hand in front of your face and the image would show through the
glasses, but with an aura of brightness at the edges to help identify it,”
Hicks explains.

One User’s Story

In August of 2013, University of London lecturer in French Dr. Hannah
Thompson spent two hours with Hicks and his team testing out the glasses.
“When I put them on I felt like a character in a science fiction novel, she
relates in a
blog post. “I was suddenly seeing the world in a completely
different way. Objects which would have been impossible for me to see shone
before my eyes in shades of pink and white.

“I found the glasses incredibly easy to use, and within minutes I was
happily navigating my way around a series of obstacles. I would find these
glasses especially useful at night, in glaring sunlight or in dappled shade.
They would not only stop me from walking into things, they would also help
me keep a watchful eye on my children, who are often the first things to
disappear when light conditions affect my vision.”

Indeed, light conditions are one of the few remaining hurdles Hicks and his
team must overcome before they turn the device over to the engineers to
miniaturize the components and incorporate them into an attractive and
comfortable pair of eyeglass frames. “The infrared dots work well inside to
fix position, but as soon as you step out into bright sunlight they wash out
and become increasingly useless,” Hicks explains. Hicks has engaged a
British camera company to create an imaging processing unit that works in
bright light to generate real time 3-D maps and still be small enough to fit
on the bridge of a pair of glasses. “We could actually perform all of the
processing on the glasses themselves,” he adds, “but we will still need to
use a separate power supply, because adding a battery would make the smart
glasses too heavy for comfort.”

Hicks has many other enhancements planned for the near future. “We’ve
circled back around to our starting point with image recognition, which we
could use to identify faces, signs, even headline text. Unfortunately, we
can’t use color as markers for identified objects, because many persons with
extremely limited vision have lost their color perception. We could create
blinking patterns, however, or play sound cues through headphones–perhaps
bone conducting headphones so we don’t interfere with environmental sound

Hicks is currently in the final months of a four-year pilot study, and by
the end of 2014 he is hoping to begin manufacturing and marketing his
glasses through a startup company named Assisted Vision for

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