Augmented Reality Goggles Are Giving the Blind More than Basic Sight

With the introduction of Oculus Rift, it seems wearing headsets might soon become part of our daily life. Now, scientists have developed a different sort of headset—augmented reality goggles that help the legally blind recognize barriers and people.

Augmented reality alters the world around the viewer, often by adding information that might otherwise be missing or hidden from sight. While similar to virtual reality in some ways, augmented reality differs because it merely enhances our view of the world instead of creating an entirely new one.

There has been an explosion in recent years of technology designed to help the blind. Some scientists propose mimicking bat’s powers of echolocation to help blind people see. Others have built a device that uses electrical vibrations on the tongue to help blind mountain climbers identify the heights of the peaks in front of them.

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The current generation of Smart Specs

The new augmented reality glasses, called Smart Specs, work by highlighting objects that are surrounding the viewer. Created by startup VA-ST, the Smart Specs use a depth sensor to amplify the outlines of objects and people. The headset has four modes: four grayscale modes and one color mode that can also linger on objects and zoom in and out. In each, the level of detail varies.

In many cases, the view is sufficiently abstract as to look like modern art, but that simplicity could be the key to the device’s success. Smart Specs were designed for legally blind people who retain some vision but have trouble recognizing items in low light or with identifying obstacles or faces. Simplifying objects helps them stand out from the background. For someone with a slight impairment, this headset could drastically change the way they live.

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A simplified view from one of the prototype Smart Specs

VA-ST, which was cofounded by neuroscience and visual prosthetics fellow Stephen Hicks at the University of Oxford, gave 300 prototypes with control boxes to people with various eye conditions. Participants in the test kept the prototypes for four weeks at a time, and scientists were able to study how they used them every day.

The large headset contains off-the-shelf components, including Epson augmented reality glasses, an Asus device that contains a depth camera and a color camera, and a small computer running the Android operating system.

Rachel Metz, for MIT Technology Review:

“The regular camera in the Asus device captures your surroundings, while the depth camera determines the distance to each object and surface. Software running on the computer in the control box uses the depth measurements to figure out what to highlight and what to ignore. If a woman stands about 10 feet in front of you, VA-ST’s software will give her body an animated, exaggerated look according to the setting you’re using—making her appear black and white with a white outline and just a few major facial features like glasses, her nose, and mouth, for instance—while other people and objects that are a bit farther out will appear gray, and the background will look completely black.”

VA-ST plans to sell a version of the Smart Specs for less than $1,000 by early next year. However, Hicks is struggling with the long-range depth cameras since they require a range of about 15 feet. Plus, the goggles themselves are bulky and not very discrete. Hicks hopes to make them look “more normal” by creating a lightweight and more attractive model.