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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Interesting times for the visually impaired - technologically speaking!

These are interesting times for the visual impaired, technologically speaking at least. The number of advances in technologies for the eyes and the eye-brain interface, because a lot of the impairment is in our heads, has really started to amaze me, and they seem to be occurring every day. An idea to write a blog post on this has been brewing for sometime. This post was sparked by a story I read today about a little girl of seven years of age who was blind almost since birth because of a stroke and who was not allowed to carry her white cane (that is a technology too!)  to school. Not such an interesting time for her because it is a health and safety concern?

Also today I read about a bionic lens made by Ocumetrics that will return better than 20/20 vision by 3 times. That is in clinical trials but the promise is an 8 minute out patient "surgery". Just a couple of weeks ago I heard about a technology discovery that could replace our weak eye lenses with an LCD equivalent - liquid crystal sight - like having a smartphone camera lens implanted in our eyeballs and connected through the nervous system to the brain. That would really help, maybe even cure, older folks with presbyopia.

The idea that technology was rapidly moving ahead to aid the visually impaired occurred to me more than several years ago when I was made aware of a research study involving smartphones and the blind. In there was the idea that crowdsourcing could help the blind in a very simple way - especially those times when they were in a bit of a bind. All they have to do is use their smartphone to take a picture of the object of thing they can't identify, for example, a soup can, upload the picture to a crowdsourcing website, and wait for one of the minions who make working there a 24/7 enterprise. After a short wait in the kitchen they get a text to speech email spelling out for them the "tomato soup can" they wanted to open for lunch.

What if they could even eliminate the crowdfunding middle person? Yes, let's impoverish those already impoverished Mechanical Turks working for pennies again!  Why not just upload the image to a search engine that can identify images? It would have to be one customized to return a text to speech SMS. Then again we would have to trust in the artificial intelligence of the image recognition software. There is an ethical dilemma there, because that might not be a can of tomato soup for lunch! Another way to look at that is computer image recognition software that could read braille and translate it into text to speech? Google informs me via Wikipedia that that might be called "optical braille recognition". That idea occurred to me today when I saw a potentially new prothesis that can sense touch.

Of course, one of the great pioneers of all of this, Ray Kurzweil, was inspired to invent in order to help the visually impaired. He developed many text to speech products, like a Reading Machine that advanced Optical Character Recognition, Flatbed Scanners, and Text to Speech. One of his customers was the truly great though blind musician Stevie Wonder who got him into music apparently, and the Kurzweil synthesizers followed.

One of the most breath taking of the smartphone app devices to help the visually impaired is the KNFB reader. This is an app for a smartphone that allows the blind to pick up text off of virtually anything. This youtube video illustrates how it is used very well:

I have a personal interesting in the technology for visual impairments because I have amblyopia, or lazy eye. I have blogged a little about the video game intervention research that is so exciting as a novel and interesting way for kids to potentially fully regain vision in their lazy eye.  The game technology devices are getting more customized (sort of binocular suppression- see Hess, McGill University) as researches learn more about how the brain works. I have been in a clinical trial to see if adults can regain visual ability in the lazy. Not that much success for me but I am still keenly interested in it. I am especially interested given the fact that Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation in a certain area of the brain and at a certain frequency will restore perfect vision in adults with lazy eye, but only for 45 minutes! See, it is really all just in our heads! Eventually the bridge will be made there, I am hoping, without having to shock ourselves under that infinite loop coil of the TMS device more than several times a day.

There are a lot of other technologies for visual aids for professionals. There is an infrared visual smart glasses that let nurses see the veins in the arm better for intravenous needles. Google glass looks promising for some professional healthcare occupations, even in the surgery. Apparently Facebook is also working on ways to help the blind "see images".

Another smartphone development by a group called Peek Vision offers promising low cost diagnostic or comprehensive eye exam software on a smartphone. Needless to say, because it is mobil, remote villages in Kenya and elsewhere can now intercept patients with potentially serious eye or other health conditions:

I realize of course that I could keep adding to this list of new technologies, as I am doing now several months after posting. Since I got the TED app that has Chromecast, I found this talk by Chieko Asakawa from IBM, who is blind herself, on How Technology Helps Blind People Explore Our World: https://www.ted.com/talks/chieko_asakawa_how_new_technology_helps_blind_people_explore_the_world?language=en

What about a Kindle style braille ebook reader?