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Latest technology to help people with low vision

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What’s new in low-vision technology? Glad you asked — because the answers get better every year.

We’ve come a long way from the white canes and braille dots that used to represent most of the technology for people with blindness and low vision. For example:

New medical procedures help people with cataracts and glaucoma.

High-tech headsets magnify and clarify things for those with macular degeneration.

Mobile applications make use of all the audio, visual, GPS and computing capability of smartphones and tablets.

Text-to-voice translation reduces dependence on vision.

Let’s walk through some of the latest and greatest tech for people with low vision:  

Medical innovations  

How can technology help the blind and people with low vision? Well, some new technologies go straight to the sources of vision loss — the eyeball and the optic nerve.

Medical procedures use innovations in lenses, surgery and medications to improve vision and/or lessen the impact of disease.

For instance, AARP The Magazine reported on a new depth-of-focus lens that a surgeon places into the eye to cure cataracts, which most people experience as they age. Cataracts form on the surface of the eye’s lens, obscuring vision and making it hard to read and enjoy many activities.

Replacing the eye’s lens solves the cataract problem, but until recently, replacement lenses could help with only one kind of vision — either long or short. The newest lenses fix medium and long vision (though people may still need reading glasses).

Other recent innovations treat glaucoma, which generates fluid pressure on the eyeball, damaging the optic nerve and eventually causing blindness.

The innovation: New categories of drugs help reduce pressure in the eyeball, while a new, less invasive kind of surgery uses a tiny stent to improve fluid flow in the eye and manage the pressure that causes glaucoma. 

LIVING WITH LOW VISION? Find an eye doctor near you to learn about the latest medical and technological advancements for people with low vision.

Hardware and electronic devices

What are low-vision devices? By and large, they are tools that succeed when drugs and surgery can’t get the job done.

For instance, a small area at the center of the eye’s retina (the macula) can degenerate with age. Thus, macular degeneration causes people to lose their central vision.

Macular degeneration is considered incurable, but it can be addressed. For instance, a company called IrisVision has developed a system using virtual reality goggles and software to magnify the user’s field of view.

Headset systems like this restore people’s ability to read, watch TV and do other everyday activities (though they may not be safe for walking or driving).

Other new assistive technologies include video magnifiers that give people an up-close view that their normal vision cannot provide. Desktop closed-circuit TV (CCTV) systems let the user zoom in on things like photos and text. Screen readers scan web pages and read information back to the user.

Dedicated low-vision devices can cost thousands of dollars, so you have to choose carefully and scrutinize product reviews to see which ones best suit your needs. However, new mobile applications that use smartphones and tablets provide low-cost alternatives. We’ll cover those next.

SEE RELATED: Guide to buying low vision magnifiers

Tablets, smartphones and mobile applications

Smartphones and tablets have built-in capabilities for low-vision people, including:

Camera lenses for capturing and magnifying images

High-definition screens for improving visual clarity

Speakers for conveying words and directions

GPS receivers for navigation and location awareness

Microprocessors for assistive mobile applications

Mobile apps put all these functions into your hands. As AARP.org notes, these apps can perform a wide range of functions.

For example, the WayAround app lets the user scan a tag with a smartphone camera. The camera’s voice processor translates the words on the tag into words read over the phone’s speakers or headphones.

Some apps let you connect with people who will help you navigate stores, city streets and neighborhoods.

Microsoft developed an app called Seeing AI that can scan handwriting and other kinds of text and read the words back to you.

The Microsoft app and others like it use artificial intelligence — through advanced algorithms — to convert written words and sentences into vocalizations you can understand no matter how limited your vision might be.

An advanced eyeglass lens for extremely low vision

Low vision usually refers to visual problems that eyeglass lenses cannot correct. But new methods of developing those lenses can change the boundaries of low vision.

Essilor, the world's largest manufacturer of eyeglass lenses, drove this point home with a recent case study that showed the conventional wisdom on maximum lens magnification was out of date.

Essilor’s Special Lenses Laboratory figured out how to almost double the standard maximum magnification while using the best high-tech lens materials in existing eyeglass frames.

Thus, low-vision assistance might not always require electronic programs or devices. Sometimes, conventional eyeglasses will suffice.    

Options for low-vision assistance keep growing

Dozens of companies supply hundreds of vision-correcting devices.

The American Federation for the Blind, for example, provides an exhaustive list of assistive technologies and suppliers.

There are many ways new technology can help people living with low vision. As you scan for solutions, keep in mind:

—  Your latest diagnosis from your ophthalmologist. Knowing the precise nature of your vision loss is crucial to trying to restore it.

—  Your budget. Check with your health and/or vision insurance provider to see if they reimburse vision correction. Before you lay out thousands of dollars for a dedicated low-vision assistance device, see if there’s a lower-cost mobile-device alternative.

—  Your specific lifestyle needs. Given the costs and the likelihood of new innovations coming out all the time, you need to hone in on the hardware/software that delivers the most improvement to your life. Prioritize “must have” over “nice to have.”

The right assistive technologies can give you a whole new outlook on life, but you have to choose carefully.

READ NEXT: How to make the internet easier to navigate with impaired vision

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