New Tech Could Better Help People With Low Vision

Infrared goggles, smart home tech, and so much more

Key Takeaways

  • Infrared goggles could one day help people with low vision. 
  • Researchers were able to combine 3D cameras and a haptic armband to assist people in navigating without sight. 
  • Future advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and lidar capabilities could also help those with vision loss.
A person with a vision impairment using a laptop computer in an office setting.

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

People with low vision may soon get help navigating around obstacles by using a new kind of infrared goggles. 

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich in Germany recently published a paper on their 3D camera and haptic feedback armband. It's part of a growing effort to use technology to help those with vision issues. 

"New technology can and does fill in the gaps for those with a multitude of impairments, including vision loss," Doug Walker, the director of research and development at Hadley, a learning hub for those facing vision loss, told Lifewire in an email interview. "And when tech tools are designed based upon the tenets of universal design, everyone benefits, including those with a disability such as vision loss."

Seeing in the Dark

The new design by German researchers uses infrared cameras in goggles to capture a stereoscopic image. Then, a computer processes the images to create a map of the surrounding area. An armband gives the user feedback from vibrations to help users understand how close objects are and how they're oriented. The goggles even work in the dark. 

"Even in the present era, visually impaired people face a constant challenge of navigation," the authors wrote in their study. "The most common tool available to them is the cane. Although the cane allows good detection of objects in the user's immediate vicinity, it lacks the ability to detect obstacles further away."

"People with disabilities need to be able to be involved at all levels of our tech..."

The study found that test subjects could gain 98 percent accuracy while navigating pathways. All five participants in the study completed the obstacle route in their first attempt. 

Tech for Vision

New tech for users with low vision is a burgeoning field. For example, Apple's new AI-powered Live Text feature turns pictures into text and even reads the text on a picture.  

"That means rather than asking for help in reading a menu, I can simply take a picture of it and have my phone read it back to me," Walker said. 

Other gadgets that weren't specifically designed for users with low vision are also useful. Walker relies on his Apple Watch for many activities. "I can ask Siri, for instance, to set a reminder for me so I don't need to rely upon writing something down and reading my handwriting," he said. 

Another helpful set of tech tools for those with low vision is smart home devices. "This allows someone with low to no vision to turn down the heat with a simple spoken phrase versus struggling to read a thermostat, ask a smart speaker to read aloud a book, or turn all the household's lights off with a simple verbal command," Walker said. 

Closeup on adult hands guiding a child's hands over brail print in a book.

Brian Mitchell / Getty Images

Other trends include magnification tools built into everyday devices, camera technology built into wearables, navigation technology providing multi-sensory feedback in wearables, and accessible technology for remote employment because it conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Sassy Outwater-Wright, who has a background in disability and worked as a blind acoustician and audio engineer, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Most low vision tools are conceptualized by sighted people imagining what it must be like for a person with low vision, she said. 

"People with disabilities need to be able to be involved at all levels of our tech, from research and development to leadership and investment, to marketing and maintenance," Outwater-Wright added. "That is not happening broadly, so the tech on the market becomes obsolete quickly because it was based on what a sighted person assumed we needed with very little input from the actual blind community."

Future advances in artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and lidar capabilities could help those with vision loss, Walker said 

"For instance, a self-driving car will be a game-changer for those of us who have had to give up car keys due to diminished vision," he added. "Also, the idea of wearing glasses that could tell me who is in the room or what's in my pantry is exciting."

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