How can wearable tech help blind and partially sighted people?

Post date: 
Friday, 4 November 2016
diagram shows a design of what the smart glasses would look like

Argentine duo Tomas Moyano and Nicolás Aichino wanted to harness GPS technology into smartly designed glasses so that blind and partially sighted people can safely and easily navigate busy city streets, without having to use a smartphone, so they designed some prototype 'Smart Glasses'. New wearable tech devices such as Eyra's Horus and OrCam offer this functionality, but their price tags and complexity may prove prohibitive for many. We interviewed Tomas to find out what would set their design apart. 

What inspired you to design a device for blind and partially sighted people?

When we had to select a theme for our final project, we decided to design for the other 90 per cent. There are studies that conclude that of the world’s total population of seven billion, six billion people, or 90 per cent, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted. That was our initial motivation. Design to solve problems and needs for someone within the 90 per cent. Then we researched looking for problems that could be solved mainly from an Industrial Design perspective. On the other hand, we are both fans of tech devices, and we think that the next big thing in design is interaction design. Connecting dots with our previous research, we asked ourselves: how would it be to design an interactive device for those people whose most important sense for interaction (sight) is lost? We thought it was a nice challenge and decided to go for it.

How do you see the smart glasses being different to other new products on the market? For example, OrCam, Horus etc.

When we researched about the daily problems of a blind person, and persons with low vision, we identified a lot of insights. Through practice, several techniques, specific objects and help of their loved ones, they can quickly improve their quality of life, until they come to the city. Cities are the biggest barrier for blind people. Cities can be a hostile environment: lots of people, noise, cars, smells, streets names to remember, bus numbers, and much more. In developing countries you would have to add the poor condition of sidewalks, robbery, and more. So, our intention to solve this problem: cities as a barrier. There are tons of objects and projects designed to improve the life quality of blind people in other areas. We wanted to design something to help them to move around in urban environments. If we could help them to move safely, securely and independently, our objective would be accomplished.

What is the benefit to the glasses over smart phone apps that talk to you?

Related to what I said above, we did not want to replace the products that blind and partially sighted people already use, we wanted to complement those objects. We investigated a lot of apps on the GPS area, but the overall experience was not really good enough. Our conclusions:

  1. Almost all of the smartphones sold today are phones with touch screens. It can be difficult for a blind or partially sighted user to get used to a touch screen when on the move. And even for those that can use today's smartphones, the experiece can be stressful. Smartphones with physical buttons are harder and harder to get, and usually have less features than the touchscreen smartphones.

  2. In smartphones, many believe that good accesibility features are on the iPhone (and the really good apps!). In developing countries the iPhone market share is about three per cent. In first-world countries is 50 per cent in the best case scenario. As designers, we cannot rely on the iPhone as platform to build on top of that. Not everyone can get an iPhone, and besides that they are still a touch screen device.

  3. Smartphones and smartwatches require one or even two hands to handle them. A blind user uses the cane in one hand to get feedback from the ground and sounds around him, and uses the other hand to apply certain technics for body protection, which help him to avoid obstacles and guide himself through walls and more. That's why we aimed to make a hands-free device. With the glasses we've designed, the user only touches the only button (which takes one-three seconds to find) and gets the audio feedback. The same UX (user experience) on a smartphone: the user has to take it out of his pocket, spend a few seconds opening the app, taking the phone to his ear (stopping him from applying protection technics I mentioned while listening to the audio), and returning the device to the pocket. Again, in developing countries he also has to pray to not be robbed in the process.

  4. Headphones and earphones aren't a good solution either. Someone with low vision may rely on hearing as the main sense for input of information. If you block the ears with headphones you are also depriving the user of hundreds and hundreds of sounds and noises from the environment that are extremely important for them, to walk and situate themselves in the space. Also, they would have to use the earphones all the time walking in the city, when they actually only need to hear the information of the GPS during five to six seconds every 100 metres or more.

  5. It's a subtle design: a thief won't note easily that it's an smart device. For people who might be vulnerable to crime when they're out and about in a city due to low levels of vision, this is important as they need to feel they're not at risk. 

  6. These glasses are also designed for people with low vision. They can use magnifiers to see shapes, shadows and lights clearer. Those special magnifiers are thicker than the regular ones, and they need special frames. Our design is capable to support special magnifiers, so people with low vision would get the glasses to see + the GPS functions!

How likely is it that these glasses will ever be produced?

We haven't offered the project to investors or companies, yet. We are still thinking about the future of the project. The first step would be to make the prototype for the electronics (we've made only the body and frame in China), the software, and test it in real scenarios to make sure it works as expected. We've been working with two blind friends from the State Library of Cordoba, Argentina. They say it would be an amazing improvement to the way they move in the cities, but we have to test the whole idea with more users.

Do you have an idea of what cost they would be if they were available to buy? 

We've made the prototypes for the body, frame and some other accesories in China. Sadly, the costs to develop the internal components, electronics and software are significantly higher. But based on what we researched, the prices of the components, and the production costs, we think we could sell them between between $119 and $169 (USD). Optimizing the design for production could drop the costs around 19USD more. Including a good margin for the investors.

Read more about the Smart Glasses project in this article (it's in Spanish, so you may need to translate the page!) 
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