A Powerful New Lens for the Visually Impaired


By John Williams It fits in the palm of your hand. But the VisAble Video Telescope (VVT) wasn't designed for scanning the heavens. Rather, this pint-size device, which resembles a camcorder, is an advanced assistive-technology product targeted at the millions of people with very impaired vision. Tools such as the VVT could become increasingly important in the next few decades, as millions of baby boomers grow old and become visually impaired. This pocket-size magnifier is all the more welcome, since people with very impaired vision have been largely ignored in the realm of assistive technology.

Fact is, the visually impaired have very different needs from people who are blind. Many of the visually impaired still retain some sight but are often reluctant to use Braille and assistive-tech equipment built around that tactile language. For people who become visually impaired later in life, learning Braille can be a big hassle -- far bigger than for younger people, whose brains can more quickly grasp new languages. But age-related vision problems are some of the fastest growing, as baby boomers enter their senior years. As of last year, 2 million Americans had age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This is the most common cause of visual loss for people over the age of 60. And the number is expected to grow proportionately in the next 20 to 30 years, as the boomers age.

The problem may be especially acute if, as expected, the boomers continue to work later into their lives. The VVT could help. At $2,695, it's fairly pricey. But the functionality it provides may be worth the money. And it could be cost-effective if the person losing their sight happens to be a company's ace marketer or engineer.

FROM OUTER SPACE. Until the VVT came along, technology designed to help the very visually impaired involved unwieldy magnification systems or onboard computers that can magnify images on immobile display monitors. But what if a person leaves the desk? Typically, such individuals can't recognize a friend at arm's length or read newsprint -- even with the thickest prescription glasses. They can't navigate streets or pick food off shelves at the supermarket. They might speak at a meeting but can't see a PowerPoint presentation. And there are more people with very impaired vision than you probably imagined -- 17 million in North America alone.

That's where the VVT comes in. The result of research and development at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Md., and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the device is compact, light, and powerful. While it's called a telescope, it actually acts to magnify objects both up close, like a magnifying glass, and also far away, like a telescope. That's a technological feat that has long eluded researchers.

Actually, the VVT is a miniaturized spin-off of the LVES (Low Vision Enhancement System), a technology developed seven years ago by physicians and scientists at Johns Hopkins. LVES (pronounced Elvis) was a camera helmet that cost $8,000, about three times the current price of the VVT. The LVES allowed users to read and to see faces and pictures. It also offered variable contrasts and magnification enhancements. It weighed several pounds and fitted over the head. The battery, which could last 90 minutes, was carried in a waist pack with a wire connecting the battery and unit. But even though the LVES was a step forward, it was cumbersome and tiring to wear. The battery ran out too quickly. And users felt they simply looked too weird while wearing the unit -- like a creature from outer space.

FREEZE FRAME. Recognizing the weaknesses of the LVES, research teams set out to shrink the device, improve its battery life, and make it more palatable to users. The results so far are impressive. In essence, the VVT is a palm-held video camera with a high-powered image-processing unit and a single eyepiece. Users hold the eyepiece up to one of their eyes and peer through it like a small telescope or half a pair of binoculars (as a matter of fact, binocular-style units could be available in the future). The lens focuses automatically for long-, mid-, and short-range viewing. This is a great improvement over previous products, which lacked long-range viewing capability. The VVT can magnify objects up to 20 times their actual size and gives users a decent field of vision of about 35 degrees.

There is also a useful "Scene-Freeze" function that allows users to capture an image on the display. They can then change the contrast settings to make the image clearer. This is handy for high magnification of distance targets, such as street signs, or for images with lots of information or letters. Three contrast settings adjust the light control, and an illuminator produces brighter images. The batteries are the same size as those used in a camcorder and can handle up to three hours of continuous usage or a full day of intermittent activity. Users can wear the VVT on a loop around their neck or carry it with a small tripod -- it weighs less than a pound.

Canadian assistive-tech firm Betacom (www.betacom.com) underwrote much of the development and will be launching the VVT in April. The company has also developed ways to expand the product's appeal in the office -- it plans to offer a reading station that will allow users to plug the VisAble into a computer or connect it to a closed-circuit TV (CCTV).

NICE NICHE? British Columbia resident and self-employed draftsman Franklin Marc Pierce, 49, has tried out the VVT and gives it high marks. Pierce has macular degeneration and uses a CCTV for reading, drawing, and writing. At first, he was skeptical about the VVT -- until he held it to his eye and slowly guided it around a room. "I was impressed by its magnification power, its contrasts and lightness. It's so small I can carry it in my coat pocket. I can seen things far and up close with the same clarity without getting a headache from eye strain," says Pierce, who carries a magnifying glass and wears prescription glasses. Pierce thinks the product is unique and needed. He says the price is "certainly worth it."

Technology companies might want to watch the VVT. It's not inconceivable that the monocle-like device might one day become a lightweight part of special glasses for those with macular degeneration. That could translate into a nice market for these technologies -- and a way to keep valuable minds productive in the workforce. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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