“Smart glasses,” which help people with poor vision boost their awareness of what is around them, are being tested in public for the first time. Researchers at Oxford University in the UK are measuring how well their invention can help the near-blind navigate around shopping malls and avoid walking into obstacles.

The aim is to improve functional vision for people with limited eyesight and help them gain “greater freedom, independence and confidence to get about, and a much improved quality of life,” says Dr. Stephen Hicks of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who is leading the development.

Dr. Hicks says he and his team want eventually to have “a product that will look like a regular pair of glasses and cost no more than a few hundred pounds – about the same as a smartphone.”

The glasses are not designed to replace lost vision. Instead, they help the wearer make the most of the vision they have by providing additional information about what is front of them – presented as extra images in the glasses. The glasses receive processed video footage of what is in front of the wearer, which is captured with a camera mounted on the frame.

The frame-mounted camera sends the raw video footage to a small computer that can fit in a pocket, where specially designed software produces enhanced images of nearby objects and sends them to the lenses of the glasses. The lenses are see-through displays so the wearer – with whatever quality of vision they have – can still see their surroundings, but the view is superimposed with the extra images provided by the smart glasses.

The software enhances the outlines of surrounding objects such as people, tables, chairs and kerbs so they appear much more distinct.

The glasses not only help the wearer navigate around obstacles, but also to interact more with others, because facial features are easier to see. They also work well in low light, helping those with night blindness.

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To produce the images, the glasses receive processed video footage of what is in front of the wearer, which is captured with a camera mounted on the frame.
Image credit: Stephen Hicks/Oxford University

The team is starting to test the glasses in Oxford and Cambridge with the help of 30 volunteer participants with poor vision. They have set up the testing in venues where they can control the lighting and the placement of obstacles. They track the participants as they make their way through the set-up, with and without the glasses.

One such participant is Lyn Oliver from Faringdon, Oxfordshire, who currently gets around with the help of her guide dog, Jess. In her early 20s, Ms. Oliver was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa – an eye disease that gradually results in loss of vision and blindness.

She says the glasses help her see why Jess has suddenly stopped – perhaps there is a kerb, or roadworks, or some other obstacle. She says once, when she was without Jess and was just using a cane, she walked into a car parked off the road. She says that with the glasses she would have seen the car.

Iain Cairns, a copywriter for a marketing agency in London, is also helping to evaluate the smart glasses. At the age of 12 he was diagnosed with choroideremia, a rare inherited condition where layers of cells in the back of the retina gradually degenerate. He still has some sight, and says the glasses help him make the most of the vision he has.

The following video shows Dr. Hicks and his team testing the glasses with Ms. Oliver and Mr. Cairns, who also describe how they found the experience:

The team started testing the glasses using an earlier prototype last year, with the help of 20 volunteers with various eye conditions and levels of vision. They found it did not take long for them to get used to the glasses, but the group that most benefited were those with the poorest vision.

They estimate there are around 100,000 people in the UK alone with the level of low vision that would benefit from the glasses.

In the US, more than 3.3 million Americans aged 40 years and older are either legally blind or have low vision, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Institute for Health Research has helped fund the research and development of the glasses, while the Royal National Institute of Blind People is helping to fund the trials.

In November 2013, Medical News Today reported that Dr. Hicks’ group is also in receipt of funding from the Royal Society to look at enhancing the smart glasses with face, text and object recognition. The team is also considering adding audio prompts via an earphone to give more information to wearers about what they are seeing.