Commentary: How Technology is Helping People with Low Vision “See”

February is recognized as Low Vision Awareness month by the National Eye Institute (NEI). The celebration aims to create more awareness about the services and programs available to individuals with low vision and their families. Low vision is defined as having a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery. According to the NEI, 4.2 million Americans over 40 have low vision. It is projected that by 2030, 7.2 million adults, 65 or older in the United States, will be visually impaired or blind.

During recent years, technology has helped and drastically enabled individuals with low vision to be more independent and productive. Simple tools, like large print or talking watches, allow them to keep track of time. Magnifiers, CCTVs and other computer software help people read print materials for work, school or fun. Newer products, like the eSight and OrCam, have revolutionized the way those with low vision see and interact with their surroundings. This technology is only the tip of the iceberg, and the future promises new and exciting things to come!

In honor of Low Vision Awareness Month, the NEI is highlighting five technology innovations that will one day assist people who are blind or visually impaired with different daily tasks. These include a cane with built-in navigation for traveling indoors, a smartphone app that will help crossing streets without veering, and a tool for people with severe peripheral vision loss. These devices use what is known as computer vision, a technology that enables computers to recognize and interpret complex images. The research and development for these technologies is funded by the NEI.

I began using assistive technology as a child, and have witnessed firsthand how it has evolved over the years. Screen-readers have gone from software with limited capabilities and monotone synthesized speech, to programs that help those of us who cannot see browse the Internet and send and receive emails and text messages. Thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology, I can read print documents by simply scanning or taking a picture of the page with my smartphone.

Technology is becoming an additional pair of eyes of sorts for people without sight. Various smartphone apps and other devices allow us to “see” our surroundings with the push of a button. Prototypes like those being showcased by NEI may one day help those with low vision be more independent and lead richer lives. Of course, this technology is still under development, and only time will tell how useful it is for people with visual impairments. Then again, just as screen-readers and OCR technology have drastically improved over the years, so will computer vision technology enhance over time. As someone who is blind, I sure am excited to discover what technology has in store for the near future!