When we read about Augmented Reality we often imagine artificial, computer generated additions to the world we can already see. Google has Glass. Microsoft has Hololens. Yet, for those who have poor (or virtually no) vision, Augmented Reality technology can enhance and project an image of the existing world in a way their eyes can process. eSight Eyewear has developed glasses that allow people with as little as 10% vision to read the newspaper, play a board game, or see the look on a loved one’s face for the first time.
The method behind eSight Eyewear appears simple enough; two high-resolution cameras on the front, image preprocessing in a small computer strapped to the user’s belt, and a stereoscopic image projected with HD screens in front of each eye. The picture can be zoomed, contrast and brightness can be enhanced, and the user is given full control using analog dials. Software updates are applied using an SD card reader built into the device.
Such a product has been a pipe dream of engineers as far back as Star Trek: The Next Generation. Set more than three centuries in the future, blind engineer Geordi Laforge (played by LeVar Burton) uses a “VISOR” to see as well or better than those with full sight. Giving sight to the blind is a goal many modern-day engineers have tackled, including departments at MIT and Oxford University. However, it took specialists in photonics engineering to manipulate light and technology, creating the far more lightweight and portable eSight Eyewear.
Conrad Lewis, a technology angel investor, decided in 2007 to devote some of his success in developing technology to those who need it most. His two sisters are partially blind as a result of Stargardt’s Disease, a form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration. The photoreceptors in the center of the eye die out leaving a grey blur where the rest of us have our most focussed and detailed vision. He created eSight Eyewear to invest in technology that help his sisters–and people like them–to raise their standard of living.
High-end technology doesn’t come cheap, and the device sells for around $15,000 CAD. There is currently no medical assistance to help pay for the eSight Eyewear. For many who need it, such a price is simply out of reach. Those who are legally blind often have a difficult time just making ends meet. Approximately 70% of the 3.5 million people in North America living with severe sight restrictions are unemployed. Since there has been little to no advancement in sight technology for the last 20 years, this has left a large gap in viable options.
Even for those who live comfortably, having $15,000 free to spend is an impossible dream, even if that dream is to see again. eSight Eyewear’s growing team has staff that can help set up funding to support the cost. GoFundMe is a common starting point for potential buyers. eSight will even help you write your story. They also work with employers who may invest in eSight Eyewear devices to improve their employee’s quality of life and productivity while at work.
In September 2015, Derek Welsman contacted eSight. Derek has been legally blind his entire life. With only 10% vision and extreme nearsightedness, everyday chores for most have been extremely difficult for Derek. Derek completed high school, fulfilled his dream of getting a job in the radio industry, and now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and two children. Even still, his wanted some things to be different. One of his greatest fears after becoming a dad was losing track of one of his young sons while in a public place.
eSight helped Derek start his funding efforts. By telling his story through GoFundMe, Derek was able to raise the money needed to buy a set of eSight eyewear in only three days. The results aren’t typical (and were actually extraordinary), but GoFundMe is typically the first stage of the effort. eSight can also help potential users get assistance from their employers. The aim is to be added to lists like the Assistive Devices Program (ADP) , allowing health plans to provide eSight Eyewear and improve independence.
As soon as Derek put on his new headpiece, he began to think of all the things he could do. They weren’t grandiose like flying a plane or driving a car, but rather activities where he always felt he came up short; watching his kids at swim practice, viewing PowerPoint presentations in a meeting, and reading the train platform display were all suddenly attainable without external assistance. Though he never shies away from asking for help, Derek’s confidence was boosted with this new-found independence.
Both of Derek’s sons picked up reading at a young age, so they could help their dad. They’ve grown up around sight-assistive technology like desktop or handheld video magnifiers, so the eSight eyewear isn’t unusual for them. For Derek, for the first time in his life, he can see his boys clearly and even see the detailed expressions on their faces. Just another one of those lifestyle shortcomings he had previously resigned himself to missing out on.
While good for detailed work, Derek still carries them around rather than wear them all the time. The headpiece is surprisingly light; a credit to military grade metal and plastic trim. However, peripheral vision is eliminated while the eSight eyewear is on. Since Derek has functioned his entire life using peripheral vision, this will take time to get used to. eSight Eyewear states that the lens can be tilted up so the user has access to natural vision, but for now Derek simply carries it around with him as he goes from place to place. There’s also the concern that, as compact as they are, they’re still quite obvious to those around him. Derek has hopes that someday the technology be small enough to fit in a pair of inconspicuous aviator glasses.
eSight Eyewear is based in Toronto, Canada, but can arrange a demo anywhere in Canada or the United States. Assistive Viewing technology has seen almost no evolution in the last two decades while the rest of us use technology that could hardly have been imagined of only 10 years ago. The price is high. Very high. However, as prices of technology drops as it became more mainstream, it is no longer a Star Trek: The Next Generation-like dream that those with macular degeneration might see once again.