Oxsight uses augmented reality to aide the visually impaired

One percent of the world population, approximately 70 million people, are blind. That is not a huge number when you think of it in terms of a potential use base for a consumer product, but it is massive when you consider that there are currently few assistive technologies available as an aide to make the lives of the visually impaired easier.

A new startup that spun out of Oxford last year, OxSight, is looking to change that. The company built and is testing augmented reality glasses to help the visually-impaired recognize and navigate objects in their environment. Think of it as a hearing aide for the blind.

OxSight is a potential replacement for canes and seeing eye dogs. Those give you immediate localization of obstacles near you, but don’t give you a sense of awareness of the environment that you are in.

OxSight is a potential replacement for canes and seeing eye dogs.

Most of the people who have tested the OxSight previously had some level of sight that has degraded over time. The product uses the sight that they still have, whether it’s detection of light, movement, or a small amount of shape, and amplifies it inside a pair of augmented reality glasses. Nothing is hooked into the brain and the hardware doesn’t interact with the eyeball. Instead the OxSight smart-glasses rely on technologies like see-through displays, camera systems, and computer vision techniques that have been developed for augmented reality to understand the environment.

OxSight layers different Prisma-esc modes and that can be adjusted using hand controls.

OxSight layers different Prisma-esc modes and that can be adjusted using hand controls.

“Once you start to loose your sight, it really becomes difficult to differentiate between say a foreground object and a background one,” says founder Dr. Stephen Hicks, a neuroscientist specializing in physical control. “They kind of blur together. But with our project, what we can do is identify a certain class of object and make them stand out. So it enables them to be more intuitive and more interactive in the way they deal with the world and really make use of that small amount of sight that most people who are blind still have.”

The brain processes three dimensional space similar to how modern gaming cameras map and define the difference between the floor, a couch, and a wall, for example. They identify the larger objects and figures out the relation between them and the user. Using this concept of mapping and how the brain already works, OxSight adds cartoon-like layers to the users surroundings. For people with minimal vision, the software can project a cardboard cutout of what a person looks like. While users who are blind but still have limited vision can customize their experience by boosting colors or zooming in or out. Since each person who is considered blind is affected differently, OxSight built a product that can be adjusted and customized to allow each unique user to understand where they are and what is around them.

A research participant wearing OxSight while bowling.

A research participant wearing OxSight while bowling.

“So the person can see the world as they normally do, but then in a sense you get an aura on certain types of objects, which say in the dark are really handy for recognizing a doorway or an obstacle or say something you want to avoid,” Hicks said. “So we can highlight the edges of that to make them really stand out so that you can really quickly and intuitively pick it up. A lot of these technologies to help people who are blind require a huge amount of learning, like trying to understand the world around them as a sense of sound. That’s just a complex thing that is really difficult.”

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