Smart glasses for people with poor vision being tested in Oxford

17 June 2014

Smart glasses developed at Oxford University for the registered blind are being trialled in public spaces for the first time. The researchers are measuring how the glasses help people with limited vision navigate and avoid walking into obstacles.

‘The idea of the smart glasses is to give people with poor vision an aid that boosts their awareness of what’s around them – allowing greater freedom, independence and confidence to get about, and a much improved quality of life,’ says Dr Stephen Hicks of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, who is leading the development of the glasses.

Photos, video and case study accounts are available [see below]

The smart glasses consist of a video camera mounted on the frame of the glasses; a computer processing unit that is small enough to fit in a pocket; and software that provides images of objects close-by to the see-through displays in the eyepieces of the glasses.

The transparent electronic displays, where the glasses’ lenses would be, give a simple image of nearby people and obstacles. The camera with specially designed software interprets the nearby surroundings allowing people to see important things much more distinctly than before, such as kerbs, tables and chairs, or groups of people.

The glasses don’t replace lost vision but assist with spatial awareness. Anyone using the glasses looks through them to make the most of their existing sight, with additional images appearing in their line of sight to give extra information about who or what is in front of them.

In some cases, details such as facial features can become easier to see – making social interaction more natural. The glasses work particularly well in low light and can be used to cope with night blindness.

The Oxford University researchers carried out preliminary tests last year of an earlier prototype with 20 volunteers having a range of eye conditions and levels of vision. They found that people could quickly get used to the glasses, and it was the third of people with the lowest vision that really found benefits in using the glasses to get around and avoid obstacles. There are roughly 100,000 people in the UK alone with this low level of vision and who could potentially benefit.

The research and development of the glasses is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The trials are being carried out with the support of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

The group has been awarded further funding from the Royal Society to look at introducing more features into the glasses, such as face, object or text recognition. An audio prompt via an earphone would give people more information about who or what they are seeing.

Dr Hicks’ team has set up testing venues in Oxford and Cambridge where they can control the lighting and introduce obstacles to avoid. Participants are tracked as they navigate through obstacle courses, with and without smart glasses. The study will involve 30 volunteers with poor vision.

The group is also beginning to see how people respond with the glasses in indoor spaces like shopping centres.

‘We eventually want to have a product that will look like a regular pair of glasses and cost no more than a few hundred pounds - about the same as a smart phone,’ says Dr Hicks.

Case studies

Lyn Oliver, 70, of Faringdon in Oxfordshire has a guide dog, Jess, to help her get around. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in her early 20s, an eye disease which gradually leads to loss of vision and blindness. Most of Lyn’s vision is on the periphery and is still good for picking up movement. She’s tried out some of the researchers’ prototype glasses at different stages, and describes how the smart glasses would be ‘an enabler to let me get around’ and would ‘remove a large amount of stress’.

Lyn describes how the glasses could help when out with her guide dog: ‘If Jess stops, the glasses can tell me if she’s stopped because there’s a kerb, there’s something on the floor or it’s roadworks, and it’ll give me a sense of which way she may go around the obstacle.’

‘If people are stood outside a shop talking, they often go silent when they see me and watch me walk past. But they’ve disappeared as far as I am concerned. Have they moved? Have they gone inside the shop? There’s a sudden stress about avoiding them. The glasses help remove this layer of stress and they do it in a way that is natural to the person using them.’

Lyn relates how on one occasion, when she was without a guide dog for six months last year and just using a cane, she walked into a car. ‘Some people insist on parking on the pavement, then swear at you because you’ve walked into their precious car. There was just too much traffic noise for me to detect it there. With the glasses on, I would have seen the car.’

Iain Cairns, 43, a copywriter for a marketing agency in London, tried out the smart glasses in Oxford’s Covered Market. Iain was diagnosed with the inherited eye condition choroideremia at around the age of 12. He has an area of central vision left in each eye. He can still work in front of a computer and carry on writing, but started using a cane around 3 years ago – mostly as a sign to others that moving around can be more of a problem.

On having the glasses fitted outside a café in the Covered Market, Iain reacted: ‘Ooh, I can… I can see your face. It’s, er, like suddenly going into… Like the Lord of the Rings when he puts the ring on. And sees things in a new way…That tablecloth is looking lovely. It’s getting the pattern of the tablecloth…It’s like I’ve wandered into an 80s pop video. Everyone has cool A-ha drawings round them. It’s now much more of a scene with several people in.’

Iain says he can see the potential of the smart glasses: ‘The glasses could really help with a lot of day-to-day challenges I’m facing in getting around or walking down the street. I do still have some sight. What is great about these glasses is that you can see through them and make the most of the vision you’ve got. They add to what you see with extra information. It’s like having a sixth sense, an extra superpower (though it’s what most people do every day) – knowing where to look and pick out objects from what’s around you. It’s very exciting.’

Photos and a video package are available via Dropbox:

The researchers have set up a Facebook page for members of the public interested in following their progress with the smart glasses:

And there is online information about the project here:

For more information please contact the University of Oxford News & Information Office on +44 (0)1865 280530 or [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

  • The research studies on the glasses are funded by the National Institute for Health Research Invention for Innovation (NIHR i4i) Programme (Ref: II-OL-1111-20005). programme. Initial work on the glasses was funded by Oxford University’s John Fell Fund and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
  • The smart glasses for the registered blind are not intended to replace or recover sight. Instead, the idea is to enhance spatial awareness – a different thing – while making the most of the wearer’s existing sight.
  • There are over 300,000 severely sight impaired, or ‘blind’ people in the UK. Many rely heavily on others to do simple things, such as leaving the house to go to the shops and visiting friends. It is thought that less than half of those with sight loss attempt to leave the house every day because of the difficulty, awkwardness and danger.
    The researchers believe that at least a third of people with impaired sight would benefit from the object avoidance offered by the smart glasses, including those with conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and optic neuropathies. More could benefit with additional features such as face, object or text recognition.
  • The smart glasses are not like Google Glass. They are not interactive; they do not perform computation functions at the command of the wearer; they do not connect to the internet, take photos or record video. Unlike Google Glass the transparent displays in the ‘lenses’ of the glasses cover both eyes with a much wider field of vision, not just part of it.
    While they both have transparent displays and video cameras mounted to the frames, they are different products for different uses. The Oxford University-developed smart glasses are designed to show where and how near obstacles are by the brightness of the basic image displayed in the wearer’s line of vision.
  •  About the National Institute for Health Research
    The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government’s strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website .
  • About Invention for Innovation (i4i)
    i4i is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) programme that aims to support and advance the research and development of innovative healthcare technologies and their translation into the clinical environment, for the benefit of patients. The programme funds projects lasting 1-3 years. NIHR i4i supports collaborative research and development between at least two partners from industry, NHS organisations and universities or other Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in England and Wales. For a proposal to be eligible for an award, the project team must comprise researchers from at least two of these sectors. (
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