When reporting on an event like the annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, it’s tempting to try to sum it up with a single narrative. This is my third year covering the trade show portion of CSUN. In addition to asking questions for AccessWorld, I was part of the Blind Bargains podcast team You’ll find links to some of our interviews at the link below.
A couple of years ago, Jamie Pauls wrote that CSUN and other accessibility-focused trade shows inaugurated the year of Braille. This year, a number of the products announced in 2016 are available to purchase, some have even been updated, and a few still aren’t available at all. Most of these items exemplify important improvements in function, price, or both.
This year, a different group of devices dominated the news. And despite my own desire to be a little contrarian, it seems appropriate to declare another named milestone: 2018 is the year of wearables. It’s fair to say that moniker rolls off the tongue a bit more easily than “the year of head-worn cameras,” though the latter is a bit more accurate, since watches, with the exception of the Dot braille smartwatch, weren’t as present this year as they have been in the past. And in a few cases, wearables are more than expensive pieces of hardware: they come with services intended to provide live guidance to the wearer.
Glasses that magnify or enhance the environment for people with low vision aren’t new. They range from optical telescopes in glasses frames all the way to head-worn cameras connected to a computer. Mobile operating systems have expanded that category, both in terms of helping people with low-vision see better, and offering remote guidance for those with blindness and low vision. Another new technology that has found its way to low-vision eyewear is the virtual-reality headset, employed along with Android-based computers to give wearables more horsepower and better engagement with the camera.
Android Turns to Low Vision
Before I describe some new and updated wearables and services, it’s worth pointing out that what makes many, but not all, of these devices work is the availability of an adaptable mobile operating system. Android can power your smartphone, or it can power a low-vision wearable. Sometimes, it’s doing both at once. As usual, Google had a significant presence at CSUN, touting the accessibility of all its software, including Android. The company provided a preview of accessibility features in Android 9, also known as Android P. Several changes benefit low-vision users. There’s an improved accessibility shortcut that adds the ability to turn color-related features on and off. With the updated Select to Speak feature, you can take a picture of text with your Android device’s camera, and have the text read to you. It works whether you’re using the TalkBack screen reader or not, and even when you don’t have an internet connection.
When asked whether BrailleBack would be updated, Google representatives said they did not have any announcements to make, but that those interested should “stay tuned.” The answer didn’t go over well with audience at the Android session.
Aira Covers the Field
Aira isn’t a new product. In fact, the eyewear and service combo has been available for almost a year. CSUN marked the debut of new Aira glasses, as well as access to the service for non-customers attending CSUN. Here’s how Aira works. When you sign up for the service you receive a pair of glasses that contain a camera, along with a Mi-Fi-equipped computer that facilitates communication between you and a human Aira agent. Using the camera image, the agent provides guidance with tasks as simple as reading a recipe, or as complex as navigating in an unfamiliar city. Explorers (the term Aira uses for its users) pay for the service by the minute, starting at $89 a month for 100 minutes. The glasses are provided at no additional cost.
Until now, Aira used Google Glass devices. The new Horizon glasses, which were built by Aira, debuted at CSUN. The glasses have a wider field of view in all directions, so users don’t need to turn their head as often to show an agent their surroundings. The camera has been enhanced, too. The company claims that Explorers should be able to capture images in real-time more often, rather than having to send a photo to an agent to have text read. Battery life for the Horizon units is up to seven hours. Instead of a Mi-Fi device for cellular communication, the Horizon model uses a Samsung J7 smartphone as a controller. Its interface is just four buttons. The “smartness” in the Aira controller is a custom artificial intelligence assistant, called Chloe. You summon Chloe as you would any voice assistant, and it can read and speak text.
CSUN attendees who aren’t Aira customers had the chance to try the service, using a smartphone instead of glasses. After a short on-boarding process, agents guided attendees around the Manchester Grand Hyatt, where the conference was held, through the exhibit hall, or elsewhere in San Diego. Users I talked to said they enjoyed the experience.
Virtual Reality Glasses are a Reality for Low Vision
If you’ve never seen one, a virtual reality (VR) headset resembles a pair of ski goggles. The large plastic unit fits around your head, has a single piece of glass or clear plastic on the front, and is secured by a strap that goes around the back of your head. Two CSUN vendors, IrisVision and Patriot Vision, showed off low-vision eyewear based on these headsets. Don’t be confused by the VR. These devices use Samsung Gear VR headsets, but they’re designed to help you see more of the actual world, not a virtual one.
Each product uses an Android phone to project images onto the inside of the headset. You see what the phone’s camera sees, with options to magnify your view, change the color scheme, or look at images from the phone screen, rather than the camera’s view. Controls are found on the side of the headset, so changing settings is a matter of swiping, or pressing buttons.
Both vendors say their devices are well-suited to users with macular degeneration as they compensate for central vision loss. Vendors say users with glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, and other conditions can also use the devices. Just like a typical video magnifier, you can use a VR headset to magnify images, change the color scheme, and scan text with OCR.
Because headset-based wearables fill your entire view with the camera image, rather than confining your view to a tiny screen in one lens, the experience of wearing them is much more like watching a movie, than like looking through a pair of glasses. This also accounts for the variety of vision conditions for which they are appropriate. They’re not exactly fashion-forward, and many users may find their bulk makes it difficult to wear the device for long periods of time, but it’s also likely that many will use these headsets in a task-oriented way, rather than as a replacement for glasses.
The Patriot ViewPoint is Patriot’s first wearable product, though the company offers a line of tablets. It costs $2,995. Learn more in the Blind Bargains PatriotVision audio interview.
Last year, AccessWorld reviewed the Orcam MyReader and MyEye. Unlike other devices in this roundup, Orcam isn’t intended to improve vision. It identifies text, objects, and people, and can be used by people with blindness or low vision. At CSUN, the company showed off the MyEye 2.0, a more compact camera that eliminates the cable and external battery found in earlier versions of the product. Orcam MyEye 2.0 is $4,500, including a personal training session for new users. If you have an older Orcam unit, you can upgrade to 2.0 for $3,000. Learn more in the Blind Bargains Orcam audio interview.
NuEyes: Lower Profile, Higher Price
NuEyes isn’t a headset. It’s a small camera and Android-based computer, mounted in a standard pair of glasses. The company says the glasses work best for those with retinitis pigmentosa or stargardt disease, and who have at least 20/500 vision. There’s a 30-degree field of view, making NuEyes more effective than other devices for people with peripheral vision loss. The unit provides up to 12× magnification, OCR and bar code scanning, and can be controlled by voice. The company says Android allows NuEyes to add more apps as they’re developed. NuEyes costs $5,995. Learn more in the Blind Bargains NuEyes audio interview.
QD Laser Smart Glasses
QD Laser is a Japanese company that showed a prototype pair of smart glasses that project images directly onto the wearer’s retina. The glasses are intended for those whose eye conditions affect the anterior part of the eye, but whose retinas are either undamaged or have some function. The company says the current version offers two hours of battery life, with improvements expected in an upcoming version. The company says the glasses will be available in Japan, later this year, and in 2019 or 2020 in the U.S. The unit is currently expected to cost $5,000 or more. Learn more in the Blind Bargains QD Laser audio interview.
Summing Up the Newness
The range of wearables continues to grow, and it’s unclear which ones will be useful to people with which kinds of vision loss. But one thing is clear: the rate at which technology made for a mainstream audience is being applied to devices aimed at those with vision loss is accelerating.