July 7, 2011

Gaming Technology Used In New Glasses For Poor Vision

An Oxford University researcher is developing a pair of eyeglasses that will allow people with poor or limited vision to see again.

The glasses, which use technology typically seen in smartphones and gaming consoles, is one of the main attractions of this year's Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in Britain.

"We want to be able to enhance vision in those who've lost it or who have little left or almost none,' said Dr. Stephen Hicks of the Department of Clinical Neurology at Oxford University.

"The glasses should allow people to be more independent "“ finding their own directions and signposts, and spotting warning signals."

Technology developed for mobile phones and computer gaming "“ such as video cameras, position detectors, face recognition and tracking software, and depth sensors "“ is now widely available at a relatively low cost.

The Oxford researchers have been examining new ways the technology can be incorporated into a normal-looking eye glasses to help those who might have just a small area of vision left, have cloudy or blurry vision, or can't process detailed images.

The new glasses should also work for common types of visual impairments, such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy

"The types of poor vision we are talking about are where you might be able to see your own hand moving in front of you, but you can't define the fingers," said Dr. Hicks.

The glasses have video cameras mounted at the corners to capture anything the wearer is looking at, while a display of tiny lights embedded in the transparent lenses feedback additional information about objects, people or obstacles in view.

In between, a small computer running in a user's pocket recognizes objects in the video image, or tracks where a person is, driving the lights in the display in real time.

The extra information the glasses display about their surroundings should allow people to navigate a room, distinguish the most relevant objects and locate nearby obstacles.

"The glasses must look discrete, allow eye contact between people and present a simplified image to people with poor vision, to help them maintain independence in life," said Dr. Hicks.

These guiding principles are vital for developing any type of aid that is acceptable for people to wear in public, with eye contact being such a critical part of social relationships, he added.

The see-through display means other people can see you, while different light colors might allow different types of information to be fed back to the wearer, Dr. Hicks said.

For instance, a user could have different colors for people, or important objects, and brightness could distinguish proximity.

Dr. Hicks went as far as suggesting it may ultimately be possible for the technology to read newspaper headlines using optical character recognition, in which a computer could distinguish headlines from a video image and then have these read back to the user through earphones.

A variety of such ideas and uses are possible, Dr. Hicks said.  For example, there are barcode readers in some mobile phones that download the prices of certain products.  These barcode and price tag readers could also be useful additions to the glasses, he explained.

The cost for such hi-tech glasses would likely be comparable to that of smartphones, and much cheaper than what a typical guide dog would cost, Dr. Hicks said. 

However, wearers will have to acclimate themselves to the extra information provided by the glasses' display, which might take a bit of time and practice, he added.

The Royal Society exhibit will allow visitors to explore how the technology will work.

"The primary aim is to simulate the experience of a visual prosthetic to give people an idea of what can be seen and how it might look," Hicks said.

A giant screen with video images of the exhibition floor itself will show people-tracking and depth perception at work.  Another screen will invite visitors to see how good they are at navigating with this information. A small display added to the lenses of ski goggles should give people sufficient information to find their way round a set of tasks. An early prototype of a transparent LED array for the eventual glasses will also be on display.

Although the project is promising, it is still in the nascent stages of development as researchers work to assemble a working prototype of the glasses.

The scientists have received funding from the National Institute of Health Research to conduct a one-year feasibility study, and plan to trial early systems with a few people in their own homes later this year.

The Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition begins today and runs all week until Sunday 10 July.

Image courtesy of Dr Stephen Hicks.


On the Net: