What’s New in Low Vision Technology?

by Dan Roberts

The field of available equipment and technology for individuals affected by low vision is vast and ever-increasing. The number of products has grown exponentially over the past decade, making it difficult to keep up on new developments. This brief article is for those who would like to know what the market offers as of the beginning of the year 2020.

The newest electronic technology includes:

  • Advanced telescopic devices
  • Portable vision enhancement systems
  • Head-worn vision enhancement systems
  • Apps and accessibility hardware
  • Crowd assistance services

Advanced telescopic devices

Telescopes range in complexity from low tech to high tech. They may be handheld or mounted, monocular or binocular.

Monocular telescopes, as the name indicates, are for magnifying the vision in one eye. A focusable monocular telescope in moderate power from 2x to 6x may be used for spotting streets signs and signals and for viewing distance objects or events for short periods of time. Monocular telescopes are made by a variety of manufacturers and are readily available. They are a cost-effective alternative to more high-tech electronic options.

Wearable binoculars accommodate distance viewing with both eyes for hands-free watching of television, plays, and sporting events. Electronic versions can provide magnification at almost any distance, and they can feature automatic adjustments, a welcome option for people who have trouble manipulating buttons and dials. They are lightweight and come with rechargeable batteries that can last up to eight hours on a single charge.

Portable vision enhancement systems 

When convenience and portability are a priority, a tablet or a hand-held electronic video magnifier is a good choice. Small electronic magnifiers provide visually impaired users with portability and variable magnification in one piece of equipment. These devices are ideal for people who require more assistance than non-electronic optical aids can provide, but who do not necessarily need or want a large stationary closed circuit television (CCTV). 

This category of devices can be moderately priced at a few hundred dollars and can be used in a variety of situations. Electronic video magnifiers provide a wide range of magnification, contrast, and enhancement choices, allowing for customization by the user. With all the devices currently available, deciding upon the best choice can be daunting. So, when purchasing, one should take into account his or her personal needs, goals, and physical limitations. Also, take into account whether the device offers necessary magnification capabilities, compatibility with computers, and portability, including size, weight, and battery life. Extra features can include appointment reminders, clocks, and calendars to assist with daily routines. 

Head-worn Technology 

Head-worn electronic assistive devices are among the newest and fastest-growing options. Wearability is more convenient than manual operation for extensive tasks and for people with tremors, paralysis, or muscle weakness. These devices offer wide magnification ranges, vision enhancement options, and easy portability. And they are becoming less bulky and more aesthetically pleasing than earlier models. Such products offer several modes of operation, including voice command, direct manual control, and remote control.

Users are cautioned to not walk around while wearing head-worn magnification devices because of the the risk of falling, but they are good for static viewing. The main drawback is cost, which ranges from two to ten thousand dollars, and Medicare does not yet cover magnification devices. The price, however, is gradually coming down as more competition enters the market.

Such head-worn devices offer magnification, vision enhancement, text reading, remote and voice command capabilities, and artificial intelligence. An example of the most advanced device is one which can clearly enlarge and verbally describe an environment, warn of obstacles, automatically adjust contrast and brightness, and identify not only the people in the scene, but their moods, as well. In the near future, it will even be able, using artificial intelligence, to deduce and inform the user what is out of sight around the next corner!

Apps and Accessibility Hardware 

Smart phones and tablets offer an increasing number of built-in accessibility features and applications (apps) for download and installation at little or no cost.

Built-in accessibility features are often intuitive and simple to use, featuring text enlargement, text-reading, and zoom capabilities. Voice command is probably the most useful feature for low vision people. This allows users to vocally request multiple tasks like making phone calls, reading and sending text messages, and storing lists and reminders. Available on both Android and Apple devices, such accessibility functions are invaluable for helping visually impaired users navigate their phones and tablets. 

Along with built-in accessibility features, hundreds of apps can be added to smart phones and tablets that provide assistance with daily tasks like calculating, managing bank accounts, reading aloud text and handwriting, reading bar codes, identifying currency, recognizing colors, and recognizing people. Now, however, developers are conveniently combining these tasks into single multi-functional apps, making separate costly devices no longer necessary.

Crowd assistance apps are proving to be popular. These apps connect blind and low-vision individuals with sighted volunteers and professionals through live video calls on smart phones or smart glasses. The assistant shares the user’s environment in real-time to provide access to maps, guidance, search engines, and ride share services. Depending upon the particular service or version, the app may be free for use anytime in certain locations that pay for the service, such as drug stores, airports and federal buildings, or it may require a paid user account or pay-per-minute fee. Service is available anytime, providing an excellent opportunity for independence and safety for visually impaired individuals.  

Magnification devices, portable electronic visual enhancement systems, wearables, and accessibility apps all play important roles in helping improve the quality of lives of visually impaired people. In addition, low vision specialists and therapists have a growing selection of options for helping their clients and enhancing the quality of care they provide.

Due to the high number of technology devices on the market, and due to the many varied needs and goals of visually impaired individuals, this article has not recommended or described any particular products. That is best accomplished by a low vision specialist who can offer vision analysis and hands-on experience with options available. For help with finding a low vision specialist, see:

Low Vision Optometrists in the U.S. – search by state under category: Eye and Vision Service Providers –> Optometrist –> Low Vision Rehabilitation.

Vision Council – A geographic search for doctors specializing in low vision services.

To peruse the market for the large array of technology products, Prevent Blindness maintains a comprehensive categorized list of links to dealers at https://lowvision.preventblindness.org/assistive-technology-products/