EDITORIAL: 02.28.20- It’s no secret that Apple is planning to further expand into the wearables segment, working quietly behind the scenes to create its own smart glasses — as rumors have suggested in a report from Macworld magazine — which will feature, among other things, augmented reality (AR), however, such a product can’t be enjoyed or, much less, used by an individual who is visually impaired, but, an artificial vision device not designed in California, rather, outside of Silicon Valley is an innovation that the tech giant should emulate and incorporate into its future wearable in order to make it accessible for those without sight.
As a long-time user of Apple’s hardware and devices who has had to adapt in recent years, being completely blind for the past seven (a fact that my regular readers have been privy to), accessibility is of concern to me personally, especially when it comes to the Cupertino, California-based company’s products, and, with February being “Low Vision Awareness Month” (a lesser known celebration than the more widely celebrated “Black History Month” in comparison) it’s a perfect time to discuss the use of technology to assist those who can not see. As the tech giant designs and develops its AR smart glasses, an issue it needs to address head on is this very factor, and, all it has to do for its inspiration is to look no further than to a wearable made for the visually impaired that is already on the market.
Enter the Orcam MyEye 2 artificial vision device.
The MyEye is not a pair of smart glasses, per se, as the device itself simply attaches magnetically with the provided mounting hardware accessory to any user’s eyewear —although a pair of faux eyeglasses are included with the product — such as those blind people, like myself, who wear sunglasses to cover their eyes or persons with low vision who already have special spectacles.
Compared to its first iteration which debuted in 2015, the MyEye, currently a version 2.0 that was updated in 2018, is now wireless (it no longer has a base unit or a wire attaching it to the head unit), is lightweight (weighing 0.8oz / 22.5g), and is approximately the size of a finger (a fraction of the size of the original). According to the company behind the product, its artificial vision device is the only wearable that is activated by an intuitive pointing gesture, or, simply by following the wearer’s gaze, – allowing for hands-free use without the need of a smartphone or Wi-Fi, resulting in real time audio communication while ensuring data privacy.
Driven by artificial intelligence (AI), the breakthrough technology of the MyEye discreetly reads printed and digital text aloud from any surface in real time. Newspapers, books, computer and smartphone screens, restaurant menus, labels on supermarket products and street signs become instantly accessible.
In addition, seamless facial recognition improves social situations while identification of consumer products, money notes, and colors provides increased independence as well.
Last year, in mid Summer, I purchased an Orcam MyEye 2 for myself. While it is extremely expensive, its high cost ($3,999) is negligible, more than worth its weight in gold (so to speak) considering what it does and can do to aid the visually impaired.
It was from an episode of the since defunct Steve Harvey talk show which aired in December of 2018 where I first learned of the MyEye. One of Harvey’s guests was a blind individual in his youth who himself owned the tech gadget and demoed it on the air to Steve and the audience. When I heard the things that the boy was able to do with it, I knew I wanted one for myself too. (And Harvey also was offering a $400 discount on the device to viewers of the program who entered the special coupon code at checkout but only for a limited time so I wanted to be able to take advantage of it if I were to purchase one).
After doing some research and inquiring about the MyEye directly on its website, the following February (2019), a sales representative from Sterling Adaptives, a reseller of assistive technology hardware and software based in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area which serves the visually impaired and persons with other disabilities, who is the local distributor of the product where I reside was put in contact with me to setup an appointment and would come to my house to give me a live demo so that I could take it on a test drive (so to speak) of sorts.
Five months later in July of 2019, after weighing the pros and cons of getting the MyEye, I totally was convinced that I needed and wanted one and it finally was in my hands (or on my face). Now the world around me was opened back up for me to see ever since I lost my eyesight in 2013 and I once again could read text in print.
The name “Orcam” (as one may be led to believe) is not the reverse of the wordmacro (seeing things close up on a large scale as in a photography lens) but, rather, is the combination of the words “Or” which is “light” in the Hebrew language and, of course, “cam” which is short for “camera” both of which, when put together translates into, in essence, “bringing light (i.e., independence) to blind and visually impaired people via a camera”: thus, the artificial vision device in reference.
This artificial vision device positively has impacted the quality of life of tens of thousands of users of the wearable around the world, some of which are famous, including (just to name a few):
- Gemma Pedrini, a blind cellist in Italy
- Susana Rodríguez, a medical doctor and paralympian athlete in Spain
- Dan Parker, a blind race car driver in the United States
Orcam MyEye 2 even was named one of the “Best Inventions 2019” by Time magazine whose editors described it as a game changer for those living with visual impairments.
Designed and developed at OrCam Technologies by Amnon Shashua, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who holds the Sachs chair in computer science, the company CEO and co-founder — who shares the title and role with business partner Ziv Aviram — was inspired to invent the artificial vision device because of His visually impaired aunt.
Established in 2010 with its headquarters in Jerusalem, Israel, the mission of Orcam Technologies — pioneered by leading minds in the Computer Vision and Machine Learning fields — is to harness the power of artificial vision by incorporating pioneering technology into a wearable platform which improves the lives of people who are blind, partially sighted, have reading difficulties (including dyslexia, aphasia, and other conditions) or experience reading fatigue.
The company has consulted with hundreds of people who are visually impaired in the development of the MyEye and designed the product from the ground up without any outside influence from Silicon Valley, from the artificial vision device’s form factor to the proprietary, advanced machine learning and computer vision algorithms.
The Orcam MyEye 2 is the only product available for purchase (currently in 25 languages and 40 countries), however, the company is at present developing additional AI-driven wearable platforms to benefit other segments of the population.
“OrCam Technologies is the world’s most advanced wearable AI-driven artificial vision innovator,” said Rafi Fischer, director of public and media relations at Orcam Technologies.
“OrCam Technologies is proud to be an Israel-based company, and to draw on the talents of a diverse spectrum of employees. OrCam Technologies’ R&D team ranges from product design and hardware to software and AI. As far as we know, this is the largest team in the world that is devoted to providing sophisticated solutions to the visually impaired community.”
(Special thanks to Anat Nulman, regional manager, West, with Orcam Technologies for her assistance in facilitating the interview with their director of public and media relations in order to obtain the product and company information for this story).
According to a feature piece on Apple’s commitment to accessibility published in December of 2019 on the website of the Evening Standard — an almost two centuries old daily newspaper based in London, England — which provided two statistics, the first, from the tech giant’s chief executive officer himself confirming that 1.4 billion active Apple devices were in use worldwide, and, the second, from the World Bank stating that around 15% of the world’s population experiences some form of disability (that’s about 1 billion people), the publication infers from those two numbers that with all of those gadgets being used across the globe, it’s likely some of its users will be disabled.
The story sheds light on Apple’s dedication to its disabled users and the ways the company fulfills its mission to ensuring that accessibility, one of its core (no pun intended) values, is an integral part of everything it makes, from hardware and devices, to apps and services, so that everyone can use all of its products.
Case in point, if the tech giant is working indeed on a pair of AR smart glasses to add to its wearables product lineup in the near future, is it thinking about how the device can also be compatible for those who are disabled, specifically, the visually impaired?
With a commitment by Apple to making all of its products accessible right out of the box for persons with disabilities — as exemplified with built-in software technologies such as VoiceOver (a screen reader for the visually impaired that comes with all operating systems on its hardware and devices) or the new Voice Control (a feature currently found only in MacOS beginning with version 10.15 Catalina which lets users control their Mac with, of course, the power of their voice) — the Orcam MyEye 2 should serve as an inspiration for what its AR-powered smart glasses could do for users of the device who may have low vision or are completely blind.
Short of acquiring outright the innovation itself from Orcam Technologies and bringing it into the fold (so to speak) — like what was done with Siri for instance, the AI personal digital assistant now ubiquitous on practically all of the Cupertino, California-based company’s hardware and devices (a piece of software that first was released as a third party standalone app on the App Store in 2010 before it was acquired shortly thereafter by the tech giant) — if Apple hasn’t already thought of how it will make such a wearable device geared towards those who are sighted function on a level playing field (again, so to speak) with those who cannot see, it simply could take cues from the MyEye and develop its own built-in technology into its AR smart glasses that would allow text in print in a visually impaired person’s world become the environment interacted with (e.g. street signs).
Pair that with Apple Maps navigation — along with a slew of other technologies like Siri and maybe AirPods built in to the frame (and perhaps call the device “iGlass” or “iWear” or even “iSight”?) — and you’d have a killer Apple wearable in the form of AR smart glasses for the everyday user that also would be accessible for the visually impaired!
Where can I line up for one already?
Molly Wood, a contributor at Wired magazine put it best in an opinion piece written in February of last year about the lack of innovation by Apple as of late when she wrote:
“And then there’s the final option for innovation, one that Apple has availed itself of many times in the past. As Steve Jobs often said, quoting Picasso: ‘Good artist copy; great artists steal.'”
Whatever Apple does decide to do with its future AR smart glasses innovation-wise, one thing is for sure and that is that this new wearable must adhere to the tech giant’s commitment to its disabled users by making the product accessible for the visually impaired — whether it copies or steals ideas from Orcam Technologies (or, better yet, buys? what with its huge cash reserves in the bank) — and it certainly can learn a lot just by keeping its sights on the Orcam MyEye 2 artificial vision device in its rear view mirror (so to speak).
A note from the author: this article is one of a number of stories with accessibility or disability related topics as its subject matter which this writer features periodically in this column due to his own disabilities (being visually impaired and partially hearing impaired) and, whenever the opportunity arises to share such stories, it is published here.