Article

ADVANCES IN LOW VISION TECHNOLOGY

Help visually impaired patients improve their quality of life by educating them on these aids

People who have low vision are often active self-advocates, looking for ways to enhance their ability to live in a world that is more visual than it has ever been. From smartphones to tablets to computers to navigation systems, everyone is required to constantly use their eyes to gather information about the world.

New advances in technology are helping people who have low vision maintain independence and improve their quality of life. Here’s a look at this technology.

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OPTICAL AIDS AND LIGHTING

Advances in these devices have largely been in the ergonomic properties (easy-to-hold handles) and illumination.

For example, an LED table lamp is available that has a flexible arm, allowing the user to direct the light and choose different color and brightness settings to optimize their vision.

DIGITAL MAGNIFIERS

Many desktop CCTVs for low-vision patients now offer optical character recognition, or OCR, to allow the user the option of reading magnified and contrast-enhanced text or having the text read to them. Users often employ both modes by using their vision as much as possible and switching to listen mode when they become fatigued or want to verify that what they are reading is correct.

Portable digital magnifiers, ranging in size from 3.5 inches to 12 inches, are also available to provide the same magnification, color selection and contrast enhancement as desktop CCTVs. This allows the user to carry digital magnification in their pockets for seeing a menu in a restaurant, reading a form at an office or seeing materials handed out during a lecture or conference. Also, some of these devices have OCR capability and allow distance as well as near viewing. Something else to consider: Digital monocular telescopes are on hand for distance vision, with one that can be placed in a docking stand with an XY table to allow it to function as a CCTV.

ELECTRONIC SMARTGLASSES

These devices, which look, from a distance, like a pair of dark sunglasses, have a camera mounted on the front that displays a magnified image on the device’s VR screens, located inside the glasses. This allows the user to see magnified and contrast-enhanced images of what they are viewing, for example, distant buildings or landmarks on a tour.

SMARTPHONES

Today’s smartphones can be used as portable digital magnifiers, without any additional apps or equipment required. Specifically, people with low vision can point their smartphone phone camera at a distant object and easily zoom for a magnified view to see signs and bus numbers for travel, a wall-mounted menu, store display or for viewing a show or sporting event.

For near vision, the accessibility settings within both the iPhone and Android allow for easy magnification of near objects. The user simply enables the magnifier in the settings menu, and then triple clicks the home button for instant access to digital magnification. Further, the devices’ camera flash can be used for additional illumination, filters can be added for color or reverse contrast, and brightness and contrast can be adjusted.

Finally, features, such as VoiceOver on the iPhone, allow someone with low vision (or even no vision) to have their screen read to them, so that the phone can be operated completely without visual cues.

APPS

Many apps have been designed specifically to help low vision and blind users. Here’s a look at some of them:

  • Spotlight Text. This app allows readers to adapt e-books to their specific visual needs — large font, reverse contrast print, scrolling text or even audio. The range of font size is much larger than that of standard e-readers. Further, visually impaired users can register for the Bookshare library, which allows access to hundreds of thousands of e-books at minimum cost. (See: www.spotlighttext.com ).
  • SeeingAI. This app, from Microsoft, uses artificial intelligence to give an audio description of the image on the phone screen. People can use this to read text, identify money, products and even people. (See: www.microsoft.com/en-us/seeing-ai/ ).
  • Be My Eyes. This app depends on a volunteer network of sighted people to help low vision or blind users. Specifically, the user initiates a video call, which is answered by a volunteer. Volunteers “lend their eyes” to help the user navigate their environment or complete a task that requires sight. Also, users can ask questions about the color of clothing (“Which of these is my red sweater?”), their medications, instructions or anything. A Be My Eyes volunteer is available any time at the click of a button, increasing the user’s independence. (See www.bemyeyes.com ).
  • Aira. This app provides a blind or visually impaired user with glasses equipped with a small camera and access to a virtual agent. The user can connect with the agent at any time (within an availability window), and the agent will be able to see the user’s view through the eyeglass-mounted camera. This can be used for independent travel, reading mail, describing scenery, etc. (See aira.io ).

OVERCOME THIS OBSTACLE

Today’s low vision technology allows blind and visually impaired people to have more independence than ever before. The obstacle for many is ignorance — they do not utilize the technology because they don’t know it exists. Educating your low-vision patients on these advancements (or referring them to a colleague who provides low-vision care) will help them live their lives to the fullest. OM