• New Technology Helps the Legally Blind Be More Independent

    Written By: Celia Vimont
    Reviewed By: Elad Moisseiev, MD
    Oct. 31, 2016

    A new portable device that attaches to glasses and can recognize print, money, products and faces may help people with low vision, a new study suggests. The device, called OrCam, uses a miniature camera that deciphers text and “reads” it to a person through an earpiece.

    OrCam can be programmed to recognize text, money and specific products, the researchers reported in JAMA Ophthalmology.

    Low vision is a loss of eyesight that can be caused by eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and retinitis pigmentosa. It can also be caused by eye injuries. According to the National Eye Institute, almost 45 percent of all cases of low vision are caused by age-related macular degeneration. Low vision makes it difficult to perform everyday tasks such as reading, writing, recognizing faces, watching television, shopping and driving.

    Study co-author Elad Moisseiev, MD from the University of California, Davis, noted that people with low vision often use hand-held or electronic magnifiers, which can be cumbersome. “It is important for the public to know that efforts are being made in helping patients whose vision is poor and cannot be improved by medical interventions, and that this novel type of technology is one such option,” Dr. Moisseiev said.

    The study included 12 people who were legally blind. They tested OrCam, an optical character recognition device that is activated by the user pointing, pressing a trigger button or tapping on the device. A wire attaches OrCam to a small pack containing the device’s battery and computer, which can be put in the user’s pocket or clipped on a belt.

    OrCam device: camera mounted on glasses, with mini computer connected by a cable.
    The OrCam device.

    Participants used the device while completing a 10-item test that included reading a newspaper, email, menu, letter, and a book. They also used OrCam to help them recognize money denominations and different brands of cereal.

    Without using OrCam, none of the participants could read a message on a smartphone or tablet. They also could not read a newspaper article, menu, letter or page from a book. Eleven could recognize paper money denominations. Eight could locate a room in a hallway using wall-mounted signs. Seven could distinguish between similarly shaped and sized cereal boxes.

    With the use of the OrCam, all of the participants could perform nine of the 10 tasks. All participants also used the device for one week during their daily activities. Only one person had a technical problem and that one incident was easily fixed. Participants said they found OrCam to be simple to understand and easy to use.

    In a second part of the study, the researchers evaluated seven of the participants who were using other low-vision aids. Their performance on the tasks was better when they used OrCam compared with the other aids.

    Dr. Moisseiev noted previously tested low-vision devices are more cumbersome or not portable. “This device represents a new step in the evolution of assistive devices for patients with low vision,” he told the Academy. The findings may help ophthalmologists “counsel patients with low vision who cannot be treated by medical or surgical means, and offer them something which may improve their functionality and quality of life.”

    OrCam is commercially available in the United States. It costs between $2,500 and $3,000.

    There are a number of resources and devices to help people with low vision enjoy a wide range of activities and hobbies, including  low-vision aids that can make things brighter and bigger. To talk to a doctor about your vision, find an ophthalmologist near you.