OrCam’s MyEye for the Visually Impaired

OrCam MyEye, which reads text and can recognize people and objects. Photograph: OrCam

When Claire Bowes was 15 she lost her sight the instant the Real IRA let a bomb off in the small town of Omagh in Country Tyrone. Pieces of shrapnel went between two arteries on the bridge of her nose and were embedded in her right eye, which had to be removed, and lodged below her left eye. She was rendered completely blind.

“I basically had to learn how to do everything again,” she tells me on the phone from Omagh.

She managed well enough to study music at Queen’s University, Belfast, and now, 19 years on, she is a mother of three, a piano teacher and head of the Omagh Music Academy. It can’t have been easy because at 15, not only are the majority of our established skills – walking, reading, writing, socializing – vision-based, but we also have a vision of the future. To see it plunged into irrevocable darkness must have been a terrible psychological as well as physical blow.

What’s more, although it was only two decades ago, there was much less technological help around in 1998. The information age was only just beginning. Phones were a long way from smart, and personal computers were not to be rested on your lap, if you didn’t want to do your thighs permanent damage.

But in recent years there have been a great many technological advances in terms of aiding the blind. “The iPhone has made everything easier,” says Bowes. “Social media and texting, I can do it all on my phone.”

However, there are obviously countless drawbacks to blindness that even the smartest of phones can do little about. This is where other technologies are attempting to offer solutions. One of them is a product called OrCam MyEye, produced by an Israeli company set up by Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram, who were behind Mobileye, the company specializing in computer vision for the automotive industry. Mobileye was acquired earlier this year by Intel for an astonishing $15.3bn.

OrCam MyEye is a tiny camera and microphone that attaches to a pair of glasses and is linked to a processing base unit that is small enough to fit in a reasonably sized pocket or clipped to a belt. By pointing a finger at a text, the user triggers the text-recognition technology and a computerized voice reads out what’s in front of the camera. The device can also recognize faces, money and other objects.

A month before I spoke to Bowes, she became an ambassador for OrCam and took receipt of the MyEye. I asked her what, if any, difference it had made to her life.

“The main thing is that the first night I went home with it I was able to read my children a bedtime story. They are eight, six and two and I was able to use OrCam to read the page and then say it aloud to them.”

She is also helping her six-year-old son to read, something she couldn’t do before, and she uses the device to read a book that’s part of an advanced course she’s doing on piano teaching.

“Even things like the post coming into the house – I don’t have to wait for my husband to come home anymore,” she says. “It definitely makes me feel more independent.”

Visual impairment affects more than 2 million people in the UK. It’s a definition that stretches across a large range of conditions from the kind of extreme near- or far-sightedness that cannot be corrected by glasses, to total blindness of the sort Bowes lives with. As much as 80% of the visual blindness seen across the globe, according to the World Health Organization, is either preventable or treatable.

In the west, much of what can be done medically has been done. So those who remain on the visual impairment spectrum are left needing to find other ways of dealing with the problem. But if the ocular condition can’t be improved, there are, as object-recognition technology and artificial intelligence develop, more opportunities to counter its limiting effects.

As Leon Paull, OrCam’s international business development manager, says: “We’re not working on anything that will give you your sight back. We are working on things that will you give you an alternative source for the information you need.”

Put like that, OrCam’s work doesn’t sound especially uplifting. We probably all like to hear stories in which a blind person’s sight is restored. But in reality, while sight may be our most aesthetically pleasing sense, it is primarily a means of delivering information. When we look at a street sign we might appreciate its design and typeface, but our main interest is in finding out the name of the street. Similarly, human faces can be fascinating to examine, but mostly we want to establish if the face belongs to a stranger or to someone we know and, if so, who exactly that person is.

While Paull demonstrates the OrCam MyEye for me in his London office, the camera’s computerized voice keeps announcing: “There is a man in front of you.” It’s on a particular setting that can easily be turned off and the device has recognized that I’m a man. Paul then informs it that my name is Andrew and henceforth MyEye will recognize me by that name.

Bowes tells me that she hasn’t taken to using this facility because the unknown person has to be directly facing you for it to work. She acknowledges that it might be very useful in a meeting. It could also be helpful for people who suffer from prosopagnosia – face blindness – which some estimates put as high as 2.5% of the population.

There is also another, much larger, group that OrCam wants to target: people with dyslexia, who are said to make up 10% of the population. “That’s an entire market out there, looking for solutions,” says Paull brightly.

OrCam was set up seven years ago and started selling its products two years ago. Optical character recognition is an established technology but Paull says OrCam has created its own model for each language that it works in, which at the moment is 12. He says there are 800 users in Britain and somewhere in the region of 5,000 around the world.

The basic MyEye camera-microphone and base unit costs about £3,120 (including VAT). There is also a slightly cheaper, reader-only version. Either way, that sounds like a lot of money, but Paull demurs. “Think hearing aids. That’s actually more or less the price you would pay for a mid-range pair of hearing aids. In many ways we see ourselves as being the hearing aids of the visual world.”

With that slightly confounding image in mind, I ask to try out MyEye. I put on a pair of non-prescription glasses, look at the page I want to read and point at it with my index finger. It’s a page from the book I happen to be reviewing: Simon Schama’s Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900. It’s not a light read. A computerized voice reads out the text making scarcely a mistake, which, given the richness of the language, is no small achievement.

The only problem for me is the awkwardness of intonation and emphasis. There is very little rhythm in the voice or delivery. It’s not something you would savor listening to over a long period. But that’s from the perspective of someone who can see a text and read it. For those who have lived in literary darkness, my quibbles may seem minor.

In any case, OrCam sees MyEye as a work in progress, something that will get consistently better at what it does and also be able to do a lot more. There is talk of uploading the barcode system so all supermarket products will be recognized. The facility exists at the moment, it just lacks the database. But the device can be taught to recognize different products – for example, distinguish between different medicines in the home. It can also recognize different colors, although Paull’s attempt to get MyEye to recognize a black area ends in failure.

However it does recognize various denomination bank notes, which Bowes told me she appreciates on her trips across the border to the Republic of Ireland where the local currency – euros – are all the same size. There are many other practical applications that the company is working on too. MyEye is not, as Paull emphasizes, a cure for blindness but it is an aid for the blind that could, in time, make a comprehensive difference.

“The path to get there is a long, long way,” says Paull. “It’s built with very minor steps. The kind of things you will see in the coming year or so would be things like the ability to recognize a doorway or stairs. Greater capabilities in terms of object recognition. And, eventually, a tie-in with GPS and other environmental sensors. It’s going to take time.”

Of course it’s conceivable at some point in the future that artificial intelligence, computer vision and medical science will have progressed to a stage that may result in a synthesis of the technologies, creating some kind of alternative “sight” for the blind. That’s in the realm of science fiction at the moment. But so were pocket global communication devices back in the 1970s.

But at the moment, says Bowes, “The OrCam has opened up a whole new world.”

I ask her what development she would most like to see in the next few years. Without hesitation the piano teacher says: “Something that could read music. That would just be fantastic.”

By Andrew Anthony for The Guardian 


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