Think about living for a day without reading: how would you go about grocery shopping, getting to the right address, or just doing your work? This is the everyday reality for people of impaired vision. Then think a little further: if we could give sight to people who can’t see, imagine the world of possibilities that would open up, for all of us.
At 2018 SHIFT Business Festival we heard from Liron Rosenbaum, director of business development at OrCam, one of the most talked about startups from Israel. OrCam has developed assistive technology that can provide artificial vision to people who are unable to read due to vision impairment. There are 350 million people worldwide who are blind, have limited vision or are losing their eyesight. Add to that those with severe dyslexia, the senior population suffering from reading fatigue as well as people with word aphasia, and we are talking about a very large group of people.
OrCam’s AI-driven wearable technology, MyEye, can read text out loud from any surface, distinguish colors and recognize faces. The device is controlled with hand gestures: flick your finger to read a text, or lift your hand like you would to check your watch, and MyEye will tell you the time. It sounds futuristic, but MyEye looks like regular glasses, allowing the wearer to use the technology without seeming out of place anywhere.
These basic functions are just the starting point, and in the future, OrCam aims to teach the AI about everyday life scenarios to make the device more intuitive and to help increase the wearer’s independence. For example, street crossings are difficult environments for the visually impaired without assistance, to say nothing of being alone in unfamiliar surroundings. What if there is an emergency and no one will stop to show you the way out? Teaching the device to recognize exit signs and other vital visual cues could be vastly empowering, allowing for visually impaired people to need less guiding and help in their daily lives.
Using technology to increase the independence of people with impairments is also a societal plus. A device costs less than a human assistant, and it definitely has other benefits as well: it’s always close to you but still doesn’t infringe on your personal space, and it never calls in sick.
Hearing about OrCam’s plans to take MyEye to the next level, one also cannot help but to think about the security angle, which we have been writing about lately. With any kind of technology, but perhaps especially in the case of assistive technology for individuals with impairments, it is not to be taken lightly. OrCam has taken measures to safeguard their users’ privacy, and for instance, the device is not connected to any cloud services. Additionally, it only recognizes people it “knows” – and to get to know someone, the device first needs permission to scan the person’s face.
Like in the case of recognizing faces, devices like MyEye have the potential to read much more than just texts. Speech recognition makes it possible to broaden their scope of use even further, eliminating the need to be confined to a set of hand gestures. With voice commands, the device could have a broader range of functions, provide more information about the visual environment and assists in a variety of tasks, like paying bills or using websites, that are out of reach for people without vision. It could make the visual world more accessible to all – in other words, more equal.
This is where a device like MyEye also becomes interesting to a much wider audience – to everyone who would like to manage their daily lives with as little effort as possible. Imagine having a personal assistant sitting snugly on the bridge of your nose, helping you with day-to-day tasks. It doesn’t have to end even there: with AI-augmented eyesight, our whole visual reality could be transformed.
With such technological advancements, it’s good to dream big. Reducing inequality is the right place to start, and broadening the scope to offer something even to people who are not in an underprivileged position may just challenge the majority to rethink some of their assumptions. Like the assumption that the blind can’t see and that there is nothing to be done about that, or that with old age come disabilities, like deteriorating eyesight. Think a little further: what if it didn’t have to be that way?