Blind can ‘see’ with Israeli-developed camera system

OrCam uses advanced algorithms, video and audio technology to open up a new world for the visually impaired — inexpensively

Erez Naaman demonstrates the OrCam in action. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Erez Naaman demonstrates the OrCam in action. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Recent developments in technology have brought good news for the blind and the visually impaired. An Israeli device to assist such people is the first on the market — and far more inexpensive than alternative technologies being developed.

The OrCam Artificial Vision Device doesn’t actually restore vision, explained Erez Naaman, vice president of engineering at the Jerusalem-based maker of the device. “We do the next best thing — to help the visually impaired navigate the world with a low-cost device and without invasive procedures.”

The miniaturization of processors — which paved the way for smartphones loaded with GPS chips, Wi-Fi connections, accelerometers, and other sensors — has also led to the development of new health-related devices, from watches that record exercise sessions to monitors that use sensors to determine blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and more.

For years, researchers have been trying to figure out ways to harness sensor technology to assist people suffering from blindness and acute vision impairment, perhaps the most debilitating and difficult physical disability in a society that relies chiefly on visual cues.

One solution — developed in Israel — is Project Ray, a smartphone specially designed for blind and sight-impaired users, which uses sensors to help them navigate the world.

The device allows users control the phone by voice and touch. For example, when a user calls up a location program and swipes it, the device will use a GPS chip to tell them where they are.

The technology was promising enough for Qualcomm to use it in a smartphone that came out last year — the RAY Huawei Vision phone, a device that lets blind users not only make phone calls, but to send text messages, to browse the Internet, to identify the denomination of cash, to recognize colors, and to access over 100,000 audio books and magazines.

The OrCam solution uses sophisticated technology as well, in the form of a high-resolution video camera and smart algorithms that analyze what the camera is seeing, and reading back the information to a user in real time.

“It’s not even a 3-D camera,” Naaman told The Times of Israel at a meeting in Tel Aviv to promote the upcoming WearableTech 2014 event, which will feature OrCam’s solution, along with many others in the medical and health fields.

“The database recognizes words, remembers faces, locations and landmarks, describes shapes, and other features that are read back to users, letting them navigate situations successfully,” explained Naaman. To boot, the company is currently working on adding color to that list of features, he said.

With an OrCam attached to the frame of a pair of glasses, a user can even “read” newspapers, restaurant menus, or books, with the device recognizing whole words and reading them back to a user.

OrCam isn’t the only tech solution for the blind and the vision-impaired. The Argus II, made by US-based company Second Sight Medical Products, also uses a camera: It beams signals to an artificial retina implanted in the eye, and sends the signals to the brain’s visual cortex — allowing the user to form an image in his mind of what the camera is seeing.

The FDA has approved the Argus II as a humanitarian device — clinical studies and proof of effectiveness are not required for such devices — for the treatment of sufferers of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects 1 in 4,000 Americans. Currently, the device is available only for testing, with a scaling-up of manufacturing expected this year.

The Argus II has been able to help some subjects more than others, and its developers are working on the much more powerful Argus III, due out next year.

But there are two differences between OrCam and the Argus II, as well as between the Israeli device and strictly medical procedures to help restore vision. “The OrCam is totally noninvasive, and isn’t even really a medical device in the strict sense of the term, so it doesn’t need regulatory approval,” explained Naaman. “And it’s a lot cheaper than other systems.” The Argus II costs $115,000, whereas the OrCam currently costs $2,500.

Among the inventors of OrCam is Prof. Amnon Shashua of Hebrew University, who also created the Mobileye driver early-warning system. Using vision technology, Mobileye senses when a car is likely to crash into another car or object, and issues a warning when a driver gets too close. Along with crash warnings, Mobileye, using advanced video detection and analysis, also warns drivers when they are veering out of their lane, when they are getting too close to a pedestrian or biker, or when they are speeding — and the system can even control a vehicle’s headlights, turning its high beams on and off when appropriate.

Although both OrCam and Mobileye use vision technology and were invented in part by the same person, the products have almost nothing in common technologically.

“The needs of drivers on the road and the needs of visually impaired people walking down the street are different. And its those needs that drive the technology,” said Naaman. “Mobileye has to do one thing — watch the road — very well. OrCam, however, has to do a lot of things. But it can afford to be less accurate than Mobileye, where an error could mean death.”

The OrCam technology, obviously, has great value beyond just a system for the visually impaired, and the company is looking at other ways it can be used.

“We have some ideas about other devices, which I can’t share,” Naaman continued. Not only could he not share the specifics, but he couldn’t name possible uses for the technology. “The truth is that this is so unique and different that it is creating a whole new category,” he said. “The devices that come out of this are likely to be very different than anything available right now.”

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