November 8, 2013

Breakthrough Technology Helps People See With Their Ears

Posted in: Latest News, Research and Developments

OrCam, an Israel-based company, has developed a camera-based system which allows the visually impaired to both read and identify objects with a point of a finger.

The OrCam device is a small camera connected by a thin cable to a portable computer in the wearer’s pocket. The system clips on to the wearer’s glasses with a small magnet and uses a bone-conduction speaker to read aloud words or identification of objects pointed to by the user.

Janet Sunness, MD (Medical Director, Greater Baltimore Medical Center), has offered a summary of her recent experience in testing the OrCam:

“The device is easy to use, with little practice required. Basically, you point with your finger at what you want the machine to read or detect, and the Orcam begins to read the newspaper, or food package, or sign to you. Currently, it reads a few paragraphs and then stops. Also, if you look away from the text, it stops reading. Future software will allow for continuous reading even when the person is looking elsewhere, so that a person can point, close his/her eyes and sit back, and listen to the text being read. It does a good job at this.

“More uniquely, the Orcam ‘learns’ what you want it to identify. For example, if I want it to recognize a specific item (say a certain brand of cereal), I wave the item in front of the Orcam until it beeps and then I supply the name with which I want it to be identified. I can also press a button on the battery pack rather than waving the item. It will eventually be able to recognize specific people in the same way. This software addition will be supplied at no additional cost as it is ready.

“The output of the Orcam is all audio. The bone conduction takes a little time to get used to, but after a short time I could hear it fairly clearly. It relies on the user pointing at the object of interest, so that at present it is designed for people who have low vision rather than those who are completely blind. It is currently priced at $2,500, less than a standard desktop CCTV. I think it is the start of a new phase of extremely helpful devices for those who are visually impaired.

“I did not have a chance to take one outside and try it extensively.  When I used it, some things were read well, but with some things the Orcam had difficulty.  Hopefully, this will be rectified by the time the commercial model is shipped.”

Bruce Rosenthal, OD, FAAO (Chief of Low Vision Programs, Lighthouse International) also offers his opinions based upon earlier hands-on experience with the OrCam:

“The Orcam did well with pre-programmed material, such as a package of Israeli cookies, but was not able to read the NY Times or perform as expected on items that we presented. Illumination in a brightly lit room seemed to a problem, too. In fact, it could not easily manage any of the material we presented. They noted that 100 Orcams were going into the hands of people in September and 500 more by the end of the year, with modifications suggested by people they had met in the US.

“[It appears] that the developers still have a way to go before this device is ready for prime time. . . Hopefully there won’t be the continuing hype and YouTube presence that has raised the hopes of patients and clinicians throughout the US without substantial improvements.”

Visit the OrCam website

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