Audible images


Russian made glasses to describe the world to blind people

According to World Health Organization, there will be 75 million of absolutely blind people and 200 million more with sight disabilities, by 2020. Currently available solutions for blind and visually impaired patients are extremely expensive. A surgery to place a bionic eye costs about RUR 10 mio ($160K). Therefore those who can not or almost can not see have limited options to communicate with the outside world – a guide dog (in case an individual is not allergic to pets) or a white cane.

Attempts to develop hi-tech gadgets to help in impaired vision situations, have been made by the market leaders, Microsoft and Google, yet the first to start field tests of a portable device is Russia’s NexTouch. The device developers expect to complete pilot tests by mid October to then launch production run. NexTouch’s eye glasses is a device which translates visual information into acoustic, describing to a user who and what is on the way, distinguishing texts, banknotes, QR codes. It can also monitor an individual’s location being both a navigation system and an alarm button for reaching out to emergency services.

IT products for special people

NexTouch was founded in 2009 and specializes in manufacturing 40 inch interactive panels for educational establishments, shopping malls and public areas. NexTouch, resident of Technopolis Moscow, got involved with social projects in 2013 by producing a simulator which helps hard-of-hearing children learn talking and not becoming deaf and dumb. Now it actively develops two projects, a simulator for people with spasmophemia which helps in teaching people breath properly to thus reduce talking problems, and eye glasses which help blind people see.

Technologies are ripe

Any new idea is a well forgotten old one”, Valery Makovetsky, company CEO, says. “Our audiovisual system for visually challenged people employs software developed over ten years ago by Peter Meyer, a Dutch software engineer who designed a code translating images into sounds and made it publicly available”.

His idea was, different sounds should correspond to items of different shapes. A tone signals how large items are while volume indicates the distance to them. A healthy individual hears just strange and harsh sounds, whereas someone who can not see, after a month-long training starts perceiving a black and white picture of the world, and of a rather good quality too.

The idea was not implemented commercially for various reasons, including technical problems. Ten years ago microchips and cameras were much larger. A portable device on the basis of them was comparable in size to a motorcycle helmet. It is most doubtful it could be worn by people with serious disabilities. Nowadays, multilayer printed boards, composite materials, greater battery capacity and other innovations permit producing a device which looks like eye glasses and weighs 100 grams.

In fact, it is a mini computer with a wide-angle camera, infrared sensors, and several headsets including bone conduction headphones to ensure possibility of hearing everything happening around. The gadget has a wireless charger and can autonomously operate for four hours. The glasses have an accelerometer which is activated in case body position changes abruptly, and sends out a signal for emergency assistance. The device has a bluetooth connecting it to a smartphone which in tern and subject to Internet availability exchanges data with a cloud library. A properly taught AI will then identify subjects and name them to a user (that can be done in several languages). According to Valery Makovetsky, one of the global IT leaders is interested in integrating its cloud solutions into the project. But even without online communication an individual with such glasses can identify 50 to 100 articles and several relatives or friends whose data is stored in the device.

This is a technology intensive and expensive device. A customized version will cost RUR 30K ($470). We hope to secure government support, and actively negotiate now project funding with several institutions. As a matter of fact, there should be a government program to implement the project and to allow an individual in need to use a compulsory health insurance to get such glasses free of charge”, Valery Makovetsky says.

NexTouch is now a technology partner with the Art, Science and Sport Charity Foundation founded by Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov. The foundation in turn is NexTouch’s customer and technology owner.

The project is being implemented at a rather fast pace. We in fact became a design bureau which consolidated all innovations available in the market in a single unit and in the process of development additionally supplemented it with further innovations. We have equipment of our own for 3D printing. We also have microelectronics specialists. That helped our rapid progress”, Valery Makovetsky notes.

He is certain it will be hard to implement the project in the market without a government support, yet possible. Both domestic and international markets do have a great potential.

No doubt, such products will be in demand”, Ksenia Dmitrieva, Director of Specific Vision program at the Art, Science and Sport Charity Foundation, believes. “At the moment, 209000 people are registered by the National Association of the Blind. But those are Association members. According to some data, 400,000 to 500,000 people in Russia can not see. Still, they want to live full life and are disposed to use the most advanced technologies”.

By Anna Oreshkina

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