If there’s any sector of society where tech is revolutionising lives, it’s in the lives of the visually impaired. Walk into my house and you’ll be greeted with a chorus of talking, beeping, vibrating devices all aimed at helping me perceive my surroundings. One company that’s recently made a bit of a buzz in this area is OrCam, who this week launched the MyEye 2.0, a glasses-mounted wearable that uses AI to narrate out loud the world to the visually impaired person.
Buoyant off the back of a win at the Last Gadget Standing Competition during this year’s CES, OrCam Technologies has launched its second-generation device: a wireless, artificially intelligent glasses-mounted camera that magnetically clips onto any glasses frames. Using a combination of image-recognition and speech software, the device is able to read text, identify banknotes and recognise up to a hundred different faces.
The device works by detecting gestures performed by the user. Point at text on a newspaper or a computer screen, or even on a shop sign, and the MyEye 2.0 will begin reading aloud what it says. Hold up your wrist if you want it to tell you the time, and connect it to some Bluetooth headphones if you want the speech to be more discreet. As well as that, the MyEye 2.0 has added an LED light for low-light conditions, and the AI itself has also been improved.
Putting a price on sight
While I can see the obvious benefits that something like the MyEye 2.0 could make to my life, there are two factors at play that make me cautious. Currently the MyEye 2.0 costs £3,500 (approx. AU$6,000); an awful lot when you consider that it will be competing in an increasingly cramped market, slowly dominated by a range of free and cheap apps made for the visually impaired.
Take Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, for example. Released in November last year, Seeing AI uses Microsoft’s proprietary AI in combination with the camera on the user’s phone to recognise objects, text, documents, barcodes and people’s faces. Add into the mix older apps such as TapTapSee, which describes things inside a picture, and Aipoly Vision, an object and colour describer, and it becomes difficult to justify the cost.
(Above: Microsoft’s Seeing AI. Credit: Microsoft)
However, according to Ian White, who has been blind since 2011 and is a user of the OrCam MyEye 2.0, there are a few distinct reasons why he thinks OrCam’s MyEye will never be superseded by apps like Seeing AI.
“I have used Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, and to be honest I don’t really see it as being in direct competition with my OrCam device, because the OrCam MyEye’s functionality and performance is just streets ahead,” he says. “Trying to programme a face into Seeing AI can take ages, and requires going in and out of multiple menus, which is difficult for people with visual impairments.
“I travel a lot for work, and I’m often in train stations looking at departure boards. With my OrCam MyEye, I can look up at the board and instantly know when the next train is,” White adds. “This would just not be possible with Seeing AI as I would have to spend time lining up the text on the phone screen and taking multiple photos, by which time I would have probably missed my train.”
The speed of OrCam’s device is notable. When I tried the MyEye 2.0, it took less than 30 seconds to programme in a face. With its new AI engine, the person I looked at was able to continue to move and talk while the MyEye 2.0 did all the hard work of programming them in.
(Above: OrCam MyEye 2.0. Credit: OrCam)
It’s worth noting that many people have used crowdfunding websites like JustGiving and Crowdfunder to help fund the purchase of the product, and the MyEye is also available in the UK through government schemes such as Access to Work and the Disabled Students Allowance. But if it requires the effort of crowdfunding, or relying on government schemes that have recently had their funding cut, free options such as Seeing AI suddenly become more appealing.
There’s another problem. Hardware moves at a very rapid pace, so knowing whether a device will be supported year to year is a necessity. Investing in a product with a high price tag, whether it’s for the visually impaired or not, means that it has to stand the test of time.
Take, for example, Canadian firm eSight’s glasses. They use two screens and a high-resolution camera to display a video feed of the wearer’s environment – but they cost nearly £10,000 (approx. AU$17,500), and are already on their third iteration in five years. Will these products become inevitably obsolete in a few years’ time? It has already become the norm to switch out an expensive smartphone for a new one every three or so years. Progressive industry updates in speed, power, memory chip density and performance always lead to the retirement of devices for new, shinier ones.
(Above: eSight glasses. Credit: eSight)
“Our goal is to create a sustainable and long-lasting solution that will set the bar on the level of independence that assistive technology can provide,” Yonatan Wexler, executive vice president for R&D at OrCam, tells me. “The R&D team currently totals about one hundred people, ranging from product design and hardware to software. As far as we know this is the largest team anywhere that is devoted to providing sophisticated solutions to the visually impaired community.”
Still, while OrCam guarantees software updates over the next year, including things such as barcode scanning and more product recognition, it’s the lifecycle of hardware devices that causes concern.
With hardware for the visually impaired costing so much, and technological advances making devices live shorter lifespans, it becomes hard to justify buying into a product when there is an abundance of cheap, free and consistently updated apps. The MyEye 2.0 seems like an excellent device, but should more be done to put it in the hands of those that need it?