Smart spectacles for the blind that could take the place of white canes and guide dogs may be available in two years, an inventor claims. The devices are designed to prevent ‘legally blind’ individuals with a small degree of residual vision from bumping into objects. Using tiny stereoscopic cameras within the frames, they project simplified images onto the lenses which shine more brightly the closer the wearer gets to obstacles.
The glasses will be tested in a series of trials starting in January next year involving 160 people with severely impaired sight in Oxford and London.
Developer Dr Stephen Hicks, from Oxford University, said he hoped a finished model will be commercially available in around two years.
The cost is expected to be around £600 – slightly more than a smartphone. In comparison, a guide dog costs up to £30,000 to train.
Dr Hicks said the spectacles were designed as a navigational aid, not to restore lost vision.
‘The glasses work using a pair of cameras that determine the distance of objects and we simply translate that into a light display,’ he said.
‘This is not restoring sight, but we can improve spatial awareness.’
Around 300,000 people in the UK are registered as legally blind. Of these, 90 per cent possess some residual vision allowing them to detect blurry shapes and differences between light and dark.
Research has shown that fewer than half of people who are legally blind attempt to leave their homes on a daily basis, said Dr Hicks.
‘The aim is to increase the independence of the hundreds of thousands of people who are visually impaired in the UK,’ he added.
A pilot study last year is said to have yielded ‘very encouraging’ results. Volunteers trying out the glasses managed to master them within a few minutes.
‘People were able to recognise where a table was, where a wall was, and when a person was five metres away,’ said Dr Hicks.
Technology built into the glasses could give them expanded functions, such as reading printed words out loud via an earpiece, or scanning barcodes to display the prices of shop items.
The research was funded through the National Institute for Health Research Invention for Innovation (i4i) programme.