But now smart glasses, developed to help people with limited vision avoid walking into obstacles, are being trialled in public spaces for the first time.
The high-tech specs are designed to give registered blind people greater freedom, make facial features easier to see, as well as obstacles easier to spot.
The smart glasses consist of a video camera mounted on the frame of the glasses, a computer processing unit that is small enough to fit in a pocket and software that provides images of objects close-by to the see-through displays in the eyepieces of the glasses.
The transparent electronic displays, where the glasses’ lenses would be, give a simple image of nearby people and obstacles.
The camera with specially designed software interprets the nearby surroundings allowing people to see important things much more distinctly than before, such as kerbs, tables and chairs, or groups of people.
The glasses don’t replace lost vision, but assist with spatial awareness.
Anyone using the glasses looks through them to make the most of their existing sight, with additional images appearing in their line of sight to give extra information about who or what is in front of them.
While they cannot be used by people who can see nothing at all, they are designed for those who are ‘severely sight impaired’ and classified as ‘blind’.
‘The idea of the smart glasses is to give people with poor vision an aid that boosts their awareness of what’s around them – allowing greater freedom, independence and confidence to get about and a much improved quality of life,’ said Dr Stephen Hicks at the University of Oxford.
In some cases, details such as facial features can become easier to see – making social interaction more natural.
The glasses work particularly well n low light and can be used to cope with night blindness, the researchers said.
Preliminary tests with 20 volunteers who have a range of eye conditions and levels of vision have already taken place.
The scientists found that people could quickly get used to the bulky glasses, but it was the third of people with the lowest vision that really found benefits in getting around and avoiding obstacles.
There are roughly 100,000 people in the UK with this low level of vision, whose lifestyles could be enhanced by the innovation.
Dr Hicks’ team has a set up testing venues in Oxford and Cambridge where they can control the lighting and introduce obstacles to avoid.
A total of 30 participants with poor vision will be tracked as they navigate through obstacle courses, with and without smart glasses.
The group is also beginning to see how people respond with the glasses in indoor spaces like shopping centres.
‘We eventually want 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,’ Dr Hicks said.
Lyn Oliver, 70, of Faringdon in Oxfordshire, has a guide dog called Jess to help her get around. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in her early 20s – an eye disease which gradually leads to loss of vision and blindness. Most of her vision is on the periphery and is still good for picking up movement.
Oliver has tested the researchers’ prototype glasses at different stages and said they would be ‘an enabler to let me get around’ and would ‘remove a large amount of stress.’
‘If Jess stops, the glasses tell me her if she’s stopped because there’s a kerb, there’s something on the floor or it’s roadworks.
This gives her a sense of which way she must go around the obstacle.
‘If people are stood outside a shop talking, they often go silent when they see me and watch me walk past. But they’ve disappeared as far as I’m concerned. Have they moved? Have they gone inside the shop? There’s a sudden stress about avoiding them.
‘The glasses help remove this layer of stress and they do it in a way that is natural to the person using them.’
Iain Cairns, 43, a copywriter in London, tried out the smart glasses in Oxford’s Covered Market.
He was diagnosed with the inherited eye condition choroideremia at around the age of 12 and has an area of central vision left in each eye.
He can still work in frontof a computer, but started using a cane around three years ago – mostly as a sign to others that moving around can be more of a problem.
On having the glasses fitted outside a cafe in the Covered Market, Mr Cairns said: ‘I can see your face. It’s…like the Lord of the Rings when he puts the ring on and sees things in a new way. That tablecloth is looking lovely. It’s getting the pattern of the tablecloth.
‘It’s like I’ve wandered into an 80s pop video. Everyone has cool A-ha drawings round them. It’s now much more of a scene with several people in.’
Cairns said that the glasses could help him with a lot of day-to-day challenges that he faces just by walking down a street.
‘What is great about these glasses is that you can see through them and make the most of the vision you’ve got. They add to what you see with extra information.
‘It’s like having a sixth sense, an extra superpower – though it’s what most people do every day – knowing where to look and pick out objects from what’s around you is very exciting.’
The research and development of the glasses is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the trials are being carried out with the support of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
The team will next look at how to add features such as face, object or text recognition into the glasses, as well as an audio prompt via an earphone, which could give wearers more information about who or what they are seeing.