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8 Innovations That Enrich The Lives Of The Visually Impaired

World Sight Day (WSD) is an annual global event held on the second Thursday of October to raise awareness of avoidable blindness and vision impairment. This year World Sight Day falls on October 13th 2016.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 285 million people globally live with low vision and blindness: 39 million are blind, and 246 million have moderate or severe visual impairment. 90% live in developing countries, 19 million are children, and 65% are over 50 years of age and increasing as the elderly population grows in developed countries. But, and this is a very big but, 80% of visual impairment is preventable or treatable. This means that a staggering 4 out of 5 people have avoidable visual impairment.

WHO have a target of reducing the prevalence of visual impairment and avoidable blindness by 25% by 2019. These targets are believed achievable, as nearly 50% of blindness is caused by cataracts, which account for 33% of visual impairment. Cataracts can be treated through high quality surgical procedures. WHO Regional Director Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh believes that the most cost-effective strategy is blindness prevention.

World Sight Day is supported by over 154 IAPB (International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness) member organisations, and offers a platform to advocate governments, corporations, institutions and individuals to actively support eliminating avoidable blindness and visual impairment.

Here are eight innovations that have the ability to enrich the lives of the visually impaired, and give them access to experiences that those of us who can see take for granted!

1) Helping mothers to ‘see’ ultrasound scans

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Polish firm In Utero 3D is providing blind parents with the opportunity to touch and feel their baby before it’s born, through 3D printing technology. The company creates a sculpture of the mother’s ultrasound scan that is an accurate representation of the unborn baby at the time of the sonogram. “The bas-relief is a true three dimensional representation of baby and environment in the mother’s womb. We maintain all proportions, spatial relations and actual dimensions of unborn child.”

It is part of a project called ‘Waiting Without Barriers,’ based in northern Poland. On proof of disability, Polish parents are charged a nominal 1PLN while eligible parents to be from other countries are charged 1 Euro, but will need to print the model out in their own country using a 3D printer.

2) Telling swimmers when to turn

Samsung have partnered with the Spanish Paralympic Committee to create a vibrating swimming cap that tells blind swimmers when to turn.

Previously, blind swimmers only knew when to turn because their coach used a long pole to tap them on their back or head indicating a turn must be taken. The Blind Cap is embedded with Bluetooth technology that vibrates automatically when the swimmer’s coach sends a signal through a smartwatch or mobile, alerting the swimmer either to change direction, or that they’ve arrived at the finish line.

3) Experiencing the world of art

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Unseen Art is a not-for-profit project to provide the visually impaired with the opportunity to experience paintings, employing 3D printing so they can feel them. The project involves scanning high-resolution photographs of masterpieces. The designers then use 3D modelling software to create a multi-dimensional interpretation of each piece. They aim to provide an online platform where anyone can download a 3D model for free and produce them using a 3D printer. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was the first piece of art printed in 3D.

Canadian Verus Art, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada, also uses 3D scanning and digital reproduction technology to create reproductions of famous paintings. Where they differ is that they use 3D scanning technology and an elevated colour printing process that reflect the colour, texture and brushstrokes of the original, making the painting tactile. Starting with Van Gogh’s Irises, Verus Art are recreating a select group of paintings to be used by the museum to make its collection more accessible for the vision impaired.

4) Helping children to read

The Dorina Nowill Foundation for the Blind in Brazil has developed ‘Braille Bricks’ as a toy to aid both literacy and inclusion in blind children. This simple adaptation of a Lego-style building brick with the Braille alphabet’s six-dot configuration provides blind children with an alternative way to learn braille, whilst playing with blind or sighted children. The foundation has released the design under a Creative Commons license, in the hope that a toy manufacturer will take them mainstream, bringing them to a wider audience.

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The Tactile Picture Book Project is an initiative between the Anchor Centre for Blind Children and the University of Colorado to convert classic children’s picture books into 3D-printed pages. Researchers take existing 2D books and generate a raised 3D representation of their key elements using sophisticated computational algorithms to perform the conversion. Each page of a book is made from plastic that’s been 3D-printed to display both braille text and tactile images. When the stories are read out loud, visually impaired children can follow along by touching the raised illustrations. Most children don’t start learning braille until they are 6, so a 3D book lets them enjoy reading from a much earlier age as well as helping them get used to exploring with their hands.

The good news is that open-source digital files of all the picture books are available to download from the Tactile Picture Books library, so if you have access to a 3D printer you can create them for free.

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Carnegie Mellon University researchers, in collaboration with the Hear2Read project, have developed a free android app that offers the ability for the visually impaired in India to listen to texts in their native languages. The text-to-speech (TTS) software converts electronic text written in Indian languages into messages they can hear. The first language available is Tamil but seven other major languages are to be released by the end of the year: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Punjabi and Telugu. Over 62 million Indians are visually impaired with 90% living in poverty and less than 10% of blind children receive any formal education. One of the best things is that the free software can run without internet access on inexpensive android phones!

5) Identifying everyday objects

Developed by students at Singularity University, Aipoly is a free iPhone app that is a potential game changer for 285 million people! Aipoly helps visually impaired people see the world around them by acting as an intelligent assistant. Users simply point their phone at an object of interest, and the app tells them what it recognises via the speaking voice (or via text on the screen for the colour blind). It recognises multiple objects and the relationship between them, and can learn new objects by typing their description. It can also help users take photos! When a photo is taken the app identifies and describes the photo to the user.

For those who prefer talking to a real person, Danish developed Be My Eyes, an iPhone app that connects visually impaired users to sighted volunteers around the world using live video chat. Thus, allowing sighted users to lend their eyes. A user requests assistance via the app and enters a shuffle call system that forwards the call until it’s answered by the first available helper. The helper can then describe what they see and answer any questions. To date there are more than 388,000 helpers and over 30,000 visually impaired users and a staggering 171,327 tasks have been successfully completed.

6) Navigating cities

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Argentine designers Tomas Moyano and Nicolás Aichino have created smart sunglasses for the visually impaired that harness GPS technology to help them navigate the busy streets of a city. Sunglasses are worn by many visually impaired people to help alleviate dizziness caused by light. In this case, a GPS system is incorporated into the eye frames to direct the user via auditory cues transmitted from small, built-in speakers. This leaves the wearer hands free to use a cane or carry other items. When the user reaches a preloaded reference point, the GPS vibrates, allowing the user to press the button on the side to hear their exact location.

7) Experiencing comic books

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If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory then you know the lure of a comic book store. Website Comics Empower provides visually impaired comic fans access to this experience through an online comic store for the blind! Audio versions of comics have existed before, but finding them can be challenging if you’re blind. The website was designed to put the visually impaired first and is completely accessible using a high-contrast display or a screen reader. However, sighted people who visit the online store have to use adaptive tools and techniques or ask a visually impaired person for assistance. It provides both original and adapted audio comics.

8) Social Media

In March, Twitter announced a new feature that lets users add descriptions to their photos, meaning the visually impaired with screen readers and braille display now have access to photo content. The descriptions can use up to 420 characters in addition to the 140 allowed in actual tweets. This new feature can be enabled on both iPhone and Android apps.

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Facebook followed suit in April, introducing automatic alternative text to enable the visually impaired to experience Facebook as other users do! For those with screen readers, automatic alternative text scans Facebook photos and lists the items a photo may contain. Previously, they would only hear the name of the person sharing the photo. Now, they get to hear “image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors.”




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