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Smart glasses assist the visually impaired

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A team of scientists, led by Stephen Hicks and Luis Moreno, at The University of Oxford's Department of Clinical Neurosciences are developing innovative visual prosthetics, electronic aids to support sight for the visually impaired.

The scientists are trialling novel techniques that use the individual's ability to sense changes in contrast. Those registered as blind might still have some degree of residual vision and most can detect changes in contrast. The technology is being built into a pair of electronic glasses, named Smart Specs.

The technology operates using video feeds from head-mounted cameras. The images are processed to detect nearby objects of interest such as people, sign posts, or obstacles to navigate. The detected objects are simplified and displayed back to the user via banks of LEDs attached to a head mounted display. Using a small number of LEDs, the position and class of the object in the immediate vicinity of the person wearing the device can be shown.

The glasses will give visually impaired individuals more independence by helping them identify nearby objects and navigate their surroundings. The team hope that, when put into series production, Smart Specs will cost about the same as modern smartphones.

The scientists began by simulating the experience of a retinal prosthetic to explore ways to improve the degree of useful information in the low-resolution implanted displays. They developed the simulation software using LabView and the NI Vision Development Module from National Instruments.

The team first simulated registered blindness then developed real-time image enhancement, object and face detection, and orientation-independent text reading algorithms. The team ran a proof-of-principle study with the system with healthy controls (under simulated blindness conditions) and with a registered blind man. Both could readily detect and identify previously unseen objects in the environment.

The detected objects were initially presented back to the test subject via a commercial head mounted display (HMD), but an improved custom-made, low-resolution display that incorporates banks of serial interface LEDs was subsequently developed.

There are many possibilities for future iterations of the technology. Coloured LEDs to feed different information to the wearer could be incorporated, so they can differentiate between important objects, such as people and road signs. The proximity of detected objects could also be established by controlling the brightness of the LED array.

The team won National Instruments' 2011 Graphical System Design Achievement Awards. They are currently starting a full clinical trial of the technology.

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