How technology is working to help blind and partially sighted people

By on December 10, 2015

There are an estimated 21 million adults in America with vision loss – a massive number of people who may struggle with the tasks and activities that the rest of us take for granted. The good news is a number of creative and innovative tech advancements are making a real difference for the visually impaired. From smart glasses to video-linked ‘volunteer eyes’, technology is providing ever wider avenues of assistance.

Smart wearable devices have huge potential for people with vision loss. One invention under development at the MIT Media Lab is the FingerReader. Worn on the index finger, the device is a chunky ring that reads aloud as the user is guided to scan each line of text.

Another fledgling innovation is Indiegogo crowdfunded project BuzzClip, a discreet wearable device that attaches to clothing and uses ultrasound to detect obstacles in the path of the user. Intuitive vibration alerts guide the user safely around the objects. The BuzzClip can be attached to many forms of clothing including hats and helmets, making it extremely useful in a wide variety of situations.

Also at prototype stage is Give Vision, described by its creators as the ‘world’s first blind-friendly user interface for smart glasses’. Designed to offer hands-free control of a smartphone with a range of image recognition features and the ability to magnify, the app can help with traveling, shopping, reading text, and recognizing places and objects. The team behind the technology are passionate about independence and finding ways to empower blind and visually impaired people – two of the developers are themselves blind.

How about a wearable device that turns the tongue into a visual aid? Approved by the FDA this past summer, the BrainPort V100 is a video camera attached to a pair of glasses and an electrical sensor that sits on the tongue. Software converts the video images to electrical pulses. The tongue pad works like a 400 point refreshable Braille display, and users learn to interpret the pulse patterns on their tongue and relate them to specific objects.

There is a huge range of apps that can transform the smartphone, tablet and PC into really valuable tools for the vision-impaired. Both the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have resources and links on their sites to many of the apps on the market. Particularly worthy of mention are accessibility apps BrailleBack and TalkBack, which work together to give combined Braille and speech capability on any smart device. BrailleBack uses Bluetooth to support the connection of a Braille display to present device screen content. Text can be inputted using the Braille keyboard while TalkBack adds spoken, audible and vibration feedback capability.

An app that brings out the best in people is Be My Eyes which connects an ever-increasing network of volunteers with blind people seeking assistance. The app works by creating a video link between the smart device of the blind person requesting help, and the volunteer’s phone, tablet or PC. The volunteer can then ‘see’ for the blind person and provide help and advice. Be My Eyes can be of service in many situations from guiding a blind person around an unfamiliar location to helping them identify food in the refrigerator.

Verizon’s Innovation Program works to make great ideas a reality – to help make life better and safer. One success stories is Velasense, a suite of tools for the blind or visually impaired, integrated into one smartphone application. The technology is intended to make it easier for users to navigate mobile devices and the physical world around them, whether at home, out and about, or at work.

For help and advice on mobile devices, accessories and services that support people with vision loss, the Verizon Wireless National Accessibility Customer Service Center is staffed with specialized representatives to support customers who may need additional assistance – please call (888) 262-1999 from 8am – 9pm EST to chat.