‘SMART’ glasses that maximise the remaining vision of partially sighted people, shoes with vibrating sensors that guide the wearer in a certain direction, and a system that converts mobile-phones into portable eye-screening kits – just three cutting-edge devices on display at a landmark conference in Glasgow today [Thursday, September 4].
The two-day TechShare Europe event in the Glasgow Science Centre will explore how new technology can save sight, and transform the aids and adaptations that visually impaired people use for everyday living.
Speakers include representatives from technology giants Apple, Google and Microsoft discussing how they can enhance the accessibility of their products.
Such high-tech innovations, says sight loss charity RNIB Scotland, the organisers of the event, could boost the independence of people with sight loss and revolutionise eyecare in the developing world.
“This is the third year that Glasgow has showcased some of the world’s most accessible technology,” said director John Legg. “And sight loss professionals from round the world are taking note of what is being discussed. From home, work and leisure to education and travel, visually impaired people need no longer be so reliant on others.”
Around 188,000 people in Scotland are blind or have significant sight loss; around two million across the UK. The figures are set to increase in the developed world as we are an ageing population. At least 280 million people worldwide are visually impaired, of whom 39 million are blind.
“And yet,” emphasises Legg, “80 per cent of blindness can be prevented or cured according to the World Health Organisation. And new technology can make a big difference here, too.
“Peek allows eye-screening tests to be carried out on an ordinary mobile-phone through an app and a simple plastic clip added to the phone. Patients’ results can be recorded and then sent remotely to eye health professionals, helping to maximise efficiency in planning treatments. It is already being tested in several African countries.
“Though specifically designed for use by minimally trained personnel, it can carry out high-quality retinal imaging, cataract grading, visual acuity testing, colour contrast sensitivity evaluation, and secure data geo-tagging, storage and sharing.”
The smart glasses, developed by RNIB and researchers at Oxford University, incorporate a special 3D camera to separate and highlight objects ahead of the wearer, and have won praise from partially sighted users. Last month, the prototype won a £500,000 Google Impact Challenge award to develop a more compact version. It is hoped these might be in shops within two years.
The Lechal (meaning ‘take me along’ in Hindi) shoes or insoles were originally designed to help the visually impaired. Embedded with Bluetooth-connected sensors that link with Google Maps, wearers set their phone to go somewhere and the shoes gently vibrate left or right to indicate which way to turn. Created by Ducere Technologies in India, they are aimed at the fitness market, but every pair sold will help subsidise products for people with sight loss.
Delegates at the TechShare Europe event will also hear about a new bus-tracking app, ‘Talking Buses’, which speaks information directly to users with an easy to follow design, and that should soon be available in Edinburgh.
Also speaking, Paul Schroeder of the American Foundation for the Blind will discuss latest developments in the United States.
“Many exciting things are happening,” said John Legg, “but we must always be vigilant that the rapidly increasing pace of development don’t end up making the ‘digital divide’ wider than ever. We want to ensure that the Digital Age opens up the same exciting possibilities for visually impaired people as it does for the sighted population.”