An extraordinary spectacle

By | Science & Technology
The smart glasses in use. Credit@RNIB

The Google Impact Challenge, designed to help fund the most innovative technology, came to its conclusion last month when four winners were announced by Sir Richard Branson. Amongst the four victors, which included crowdsourcing data to help prevent mosquito borne microbes, was the People’s Choice Award. This year saw the public’s vote place ‘The Royal National Institute for the Blind’ (RNIB) and Oxford University on the winner’s pedestal for their ‘smart glasses’. This revolutionary piece of equipment is set to change the lives of thousands, by enhancing the sight of blind and partially sighted individuals, who may use them to pick out complex shapes and objects.

Inspiring the public, these smart glasses allow the blind and partially sighted to pick out nearby objects whilst distinguishing them from the foreground and background. It also gives them the ability to focus on people and objects closer to them, as the image brightens as they get nearer to the user. Therefore many blind or partially sighted people will, for the first time, be able to pick out complex details such as facial expressions and body language, gaining much greater awareness of their environment. The glasses are equipped with a 3D depth camera, which collects information about the surroundings. This is then processed by a computer and is projected back onto the lenses of the glasses. The lenses are transparent so the computer generated images are overlain on top of what the individual may already see. The smart glasses may also be tailored to suit the needs of the user. For instance, depending on the user’s perception of colour and field of vision, the display may be altered to maximise their experience.

Simon Shortland Proactive International PR modelling the smart glasses. Credit@SimonShortland.

The Google Impact Challenge awarded RNIB and Oxford University with £500,000 for their victory. This money aims to help make the smart glasses globally available, allowing the RNIB and Oxford University to further develop and improve upon their design. The winnings may enable them to build 100 pairs of the glasses, which aims to be tested on 1000 people, many whose lives may undoubtedly be improved by this experience. Following these trials RNIB predict that the smart glasses may be commercially available as early as 2016 with a suspected price tag of £300. The glasses may also be adjusted and improved upon before release to the general public. For example, originally the glasses were 300 grams and had to be connected to a laptop. However, the latest designs are far lighter and more compact, able to function from a much smaller handheld device. Google’s money will grant RNIB and Oxford University the freedom to make further tweaks to their ingenious design, enabling improved usability for the future release.

The RNIB believe that 150,000 blind or partially sighted people across Britain may be able take advantage of the smart glasses once it reaches the shops. With sights set on a global scale this figure could reach 15 million individuals, revolutionising the treatment for the blind and partially sighted individuals. The glasses might also save the NHS millions in care costs as these individuals are granted greater freedom, safety and control over their lives. Neil Heslop, the Managing Director RNIB Solutions said “These glasses have the potential to transform the way blind and partially sighted people go about their everyday lives… We are absolutely delighted to be the winner of the Google Impact Challenge 2014 public vote.” These innovative smart glasses have clearly captured the imagination of the public. Ingenuity, highlighted by popularity, seems to be a winning formula for extraordinary technological advances.

How else might smart glasses improve the lives of blind or partially sighted individuals?

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