Edge of Innovation

Can electronic devices replace guide dogs for the blind?

“Oh my, look at his long toes, they are just like Tommy’s… You know, I think he has my nose,” says Kathy Bleitz to her newborn son Aksel, while she’s lying on a bed in the delivery room.

A mother raving about her newborn baby is nothing new. But this situation is quite unique, because 29 year-old Canadian Kathy Bleitz is not just seeing her baby for the first time. It’s the first time in her life that she has ever seen a baby.

Since the age of 11, Kathy has suffered from Stargardt disease – an inherited macular degeneration that causes progressive vision loss. The disease occurs in one out of 10-20,000 children, usually between 8 and 12 years of age.

The new mom is not completely blind, yet she has almost completely lost her central vision. For Stargardt sufferers, the effect is like having a permanent spot in front of your eyes that obscures everything in the center of the field of view. This means that people with the disease are unable to recognise faces, as they are perceived as shapeless, blurred objects.

So how was Kathy able to see little Aksel?

It’s all thanks to a device called eSight Eyewear. This nifty little piece of equipment is a combination of a video camera, OLED display and computer. The device is worn in a similar way to a pair of glasses. It captures an image and displays it in real time right in front of the wearer’s eyes. At the same time, eSight has all the features of a decent display – 14x zoom, contrast adjustment and the like.

Unfortunately, the eSight Eyewear also has some disadvantages — it’s large and it costs about $15,000. The good news is that these are two problems that can be fixed. Do you remember the price and size of the first cell phones? As technology developed, they shrank, slimmed and became less expensive. These revolutionary glasses will hopefully do the same.

And as for Kathy Bleitz and her son, ABC News reported that they are both doing just fine.

The eSight glasses are not cheap – they cost 15,000 dollars. However, the company is working with the government in order to allow funding of the purchase for less wealthy patients.
The eSight glasses are not cheap – they cost $15,000. However, the company is working with the government in order to allow funding of the purchase for less wealthy patients.

It’s not the only solution for the blind and visually impaired. In the UK, the Cities Unlocked project involves, among others, Microsoft, headphones manufacturer AfterShokz and a government program called Future Cities Catapult.

This cooperation resulted in the creation of a gadget that combines a set of headphones with bone conduction technology (that converts sound waves into vibration), together with an accelerometer, compass, gyroscope, GPS module and a smartphone.

Here’s how it works: the wearer uses their smartphone to begin their proposed route around the city. If they move in the right direction, the headphones emit a continuous signal. When the user walks off course, the device emits a distinctive noise. Why didn’t its inventors equip the device with regular headphones? So that the device could receive ambient sound as well.

But that’s not all: the wearer can also receive information about intersections, be alerted as to streets with low-hanging tree branches, cars parked next to the pavement, information on the age of the buildings they are passing by, or promotions in the stores around the corner. This is all possible thanks to the wireless connection between the device and its online maps.

Another solution was introduced by Intel. During the company’s new product presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated the use of the RealSense 3D camera, which could not only be the future of home computing, but also provide a solution to the problems of people with disabilities.

In short, the RealSense 3D technology was created in order to make the devices around us more human-like. RealSense 3D cameras respond to user gestures in three dimensions and are able to detect depth. As Intel explains, this is possible “thanks to three components: a conventional camera, an infrared camera, and an infrared laser projector, used for detecting the infrared beam that bounces off objects located in front of the device.”

So the Intel designers thought: “OK, we have a device that perfectly captures three dimensions. There are people with disabilities, who want to safely move around in these dimensions. Let’s try and put it all together. Hmm, or maybe something is missing? Like… a jacket?”

This train of thought resulted in some new clothing, which – thanks to the built-in 3D RealSense cameras – “sees” the world for the wearer. The cameras create an image of the street or room, and inform the user about the environment through vibrations.

Darryl Adams in RealSense clothing

In order to show how the jacket works, Brian Krzanich was assisted by Intel’s employee Darryl Adams, who was diagnosed with pigmentary retinopathy 30 years ago.

“This invention gives me a sense of comfort and safety that I haven’t felt in a very, very long time,” said Adams during the presentation.

The invention looks promising, especially since Brian Krzanich wants the technology to be available to everyone. The only aspect that Intel has to work on is its fashion sense, as it appeared that the model in Las Vegas looked a little fatter than he really was!

All of the above concepts and technologies are both incredible and valuable, but none of them cause as much excitement as the “bionic eye,” which is designed to help patients who suffer from pigmentary retinopathy. Just take a look for yourself in the video below:

You’ve just witnessed someone who, thanks to science, was able to perceive light for the first time in 10 years.

Allen Zderad, a 68 year-old from Minnesota, began to lose his sight 20 years ago. Retinopathy, associated with the deposition of pigment in the retina, is incurable, but does not always have to mean serious eye problems.

Unfortunately, in Allen’s case the disease had spread to such an extent that a decade ago he lost his sight. As he was only able to perceive powerful sources of light, he had to give up his career as a pharmacist. But the worst part of his condition was that he was unable to see his family — his wife Carmen and their 10 grandchildren. One of the grandchildren was the reason Allen was able to use the “bionic eye.”

Dr. Raymond Lezzi from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester had been visiting Allen’s grandson. The boy had been diagnosed with the initial phase of retinopathy (since the disease is hereditary). During discussions, it turned out that the boy’s grandfather would be a perfect candidate for clinical trials of the new invention. Soon after, Zderad became only the 15th person in the United States to try out this medical miracle.

The bionic eye is a kind of prosthetic eye. Retinopathy destroys the photoreceptors in the retina, and so the job of the device is to replace them by sending light signals directly to the optic nerve, bypassing the damaged retina.

For this to work, the patient’s eye is surgically implanted with a small chip equipped with electrodes. The technology also includes a small mobile computer worn by the patient, and some special glasses equipped with a camera that sends the recorded video image to the computer. The computer analyses and processes the signals and then communicates with the implant placed in the eye. Electrodes from the implant send the signal to the optic nerve, allowing the brain to interpret it as an image.

As amazing as this is, the device is still not perfect. Patients receive a very pixelated image. However, they are able to recognize contours and human shapes, perceive the light coming into the room through a window, see the full moon, or in Allen’s case, recognise a loved one. Thanks to his new eye, Zderad was able to see his wife.

“That was easy! She was the most beautiful person in the entire room,” said Allen. And in one moment, technology changes a life for the better.

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