Thanks to Assistive Technology, Two New Ways to See the World

  • June 19, 2013
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In recent months, companies in the United States and Israel have developed two new assistive technologies that help people with visual impairments to literally see their world in a new light.

The image is centered on a 3D side profile of a model of a man's bald head. The model is gray in color and the top of a shirt collar is visible. The model is wearing futuristic looking black glasses with dark shades. Extending down from the glasses arm is a black solid circle and another black shape closer to the ear.A Second Sight Medical Products image of the Argus II

In February, the FDA approved a new device that would help the visually impaired to see shapes like crosswalks, cars andother visual information key to safely navigating a city. Second Sight Medical Products’s revolutionary technology, called Argus II, works through signals picked up by a surgically implanted sheet of electrodes in the retina. The signals are transmitted to a processor which sends them back to the brain as visual inputs. For Barbara Campbell, a woman featured in a New York Times article about the Argus II, the technology has increased her independence and given her back some of the sight she lost to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. Another user, Elias Konstantopolous, has experienced similar success with the device. As he puts it, “When you have nothing, this is something. It’s a lot.”

The picture is a close up of the right side of a white woman's face. She appears to be smiling, though only her brown eye, half of her nose and her right ear is visible. The woman wears brown rimmed glasses. Attached to the orange right arm of the glasses is a small black device: the OrCam.Liat Negrin sees with the OrCam in a photo from the company’s website.

Just a few weeks ago, an Israeli start-up came on the scene with its own assistive technology for those with visual impairments. The OrCam works quite differently from the Argus II. Instead of being implanted into the user’s body, the OrCam is simply attached to a pair of glasses. The camera “reads” text in the world, reporting back to the user through audio output. This incredible video demonstrates the OrCam’s ability to read street signs, cereal boxes, and even learn unfamiliar products.

While both technologies are a fantastic step in the right direction, they have their drawbacks. The Argus II is a permanent way to restore partial vision to those who have lost it. Unfortunately, it is only available to a small subset of the visually impaired population. The criteria are as follows: the patient must be 25 years of age or older, experience low or no light perception ability, but have been able to see in the past. The OrCam is available to anyone with glasses to clip it to, but merely enhances a person’s ability to navigate the world around them without actually restoring vision.  Furthermore, it is not accessible to the Deaf community.

Given their drawbacks, can these technologies make a difference? Absolutely. The development of these technologies is incredibly encouraging. It signifies how advanced assistive technology is becoming, and what a huge impact it can make on a person’s life.  In the future, we hope to see technology like the Argus II designed to be available to all with visual impairments. Until then, technologies like OrCam bridge the gap and allow people to navigate a world not designed for their needs.

In the words of Barbara Campbell, Argus II user, “it’s only gonna get better.”

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