Ashley Deemer, OD, FAAO, assistant professor of ophthalmology, Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. Dr. Deemer has clinical expertise in and conducts research on low-vision rehabilitation. Photo of IrisVision courtesy of IrisVision Global, Inc. Photo of OrCam MyEye 2.0 courtesy of OrCam Technologies.
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Losing the ability to see well enough to drive, read, search the Internet, engage in your favorite hobbies—even see the faces of loved ones—has a huge impact on one’s quality of life. Happily, new devices now let more people with low vision participate fully in a world they thought was lost.
NEW LOW-VISION TECHNOLOGIES
Traditional solutions to diminished visual acuity include bright lighting, handheld and computer magnifiers, special microscopes and telescopes. These are still useful and recommended—for instance, a hand magnifier at the grocery store is inexpensive and handy. Low-vision features, such as text-to-speech, zoom and enlarged display settings, are now standard for most computers, tablets and smartphones.
The exciting news is that there are now some amazing new devices that offer even better help…
• IrisVision. This low-vision enhancement system is a head-mounted device that works similarly to the popular smartphone-based virtual reality systems. IrisVision pairs a Samsung smartphone (included) with a gogglelike virtual reality headset. The phone’s camera creates a live video, which gets magnified by the computer system in the smartphone’s software, so what the user sees on the lenses of the goggles is like looking at a giant movie screen.
The goggles also have a full-field zoom and can be adjusted to specific vision needs, even for users with macular degeneration who may have lost central vision. Plus, a zoom-in “bubble” feature lets users get a closer look at particular objects. Useful for: Reading, watching television, seeing family members’ faces. Because of the limited visual field, the device is not usable for walking around.
IrisVision (IrisVision.com). Cost: $2,500. (You also may be able to try out and order the device from your eye doctor.)
• eSight. A less cumbersome head-mounted magnifying device is eSight, which uses the same general technology as IrisVision, but features wraparound glasses that are smaller and lighter. eSight also has a high-resolution camera/computer system that captures a real-time video and then magnifies and displays the image on the device’s lenses. However, the device provides a more natural visual experience via a “bioptic tilt” option—the user can look through the lenses and also look under the device using his/her natural vision or tilt the device down to look only through the lenses. It has a full-field zoom but doesn’t offer a zoom-in feature. Useful for: The same activities as IrisVision. eSight also is the only head-mounted magnification system that can be worn while walking around.
• OrCam MyEye 2.0. A lightweight, slender artificial vision device that attaches to the temple of most styles of eyeglasses, OrCam MyEye 2.0 has a tiny camera that scans wherever the user points it, instantly converts the visual information to speech/audio and communicates it to the user via a small speaker that is positioned on the end of the finger-size device that sits just above the ear.
For instance, simple hand-gesture recognition and optical-character recognition allow the user to point the device at text and have it read aloud. A facial-recognition feature stores and retrieves up to 100 faces and “speaks” the name of any person whose face is stored when that person appears in front of the camera. OrCam MyEye 2.0 also can recognize colors and favorite grocery items and has a database of one million product UPC codes (bar codes).
Unlike IrisVision and eSight, OrCam MyEye 2.0 doesn’t provide a view of the general surroundings, but focuses instead on utilizing audio to compensate for vision loss, making the device usable by people who have mild visual impairment to those who are fully blind. Useful for: Reading (for example, books, mail, newspapers, price tags, labels, medicine bottles), shopping, choosing color-coordinated outfits when dressing and recognizing familiar faces.
While these new devices can be miraculous solutions for someone with low vision, they are expensive…and currently not covered by insurance. Prices may come down over time, as usually happens with new technology. Meanwhile, there are programs that can help defray the costs…
• “Angel grants.” Some of the larger eye clinics may have philanthropic donors who have set aside funds for such use. Ask your clinic if it has such a grant program and whether you qualify.
• Lions Club. This nonprofit group very actively supports vision research. Contact your local chapter, and ask about your options for finding or raising funds for your vision device. You can find a club locator at LionsClubs.org.
• Employers. If visual acuity is important to your daily work activities, ask your employer about purchasing a device for your use. The company would own the device, but you would still have the benefit of using it during work hours.
• State rehabilitation agencies. Each state gets funding to support individuals with disabilities, including vision impairment. As part of rehabilitation, these agencies teach skills for independent living and vocational rehab and commonly help fund costs for visual assistive equipment. While they’re not covering the costs of newer technologies just yet, that is likely to change as the technologies become more commonplace.
WHAT IS LOW VISION?
“Low vision” is a term that covers significant visual impairment—from vision that can’t be corrected to better than 20/40 even with prescriptive lenses (eyeglasses or contacts), surgery or medication…to vision that is 20/200 or worse even with correction, defined as legally blind.