NECO researches the advancement in assistive technology

NECO’s Low Vision Lab conducts a research study focusing on the accessibility of vision assist applications for people living with low vision and other vision impairments.

For many visually impaired people, daily activities become a challenge when interacting with an inaccessible world. Tasks like navigating an outdated public transit system or identifying text in a menu can present problems that people without vision impairments wouldn’t consider.

NECO’s Low Vision Lab is led by Dr Nicole Ross and is currently facilitating a number of cutting-edge clinical research projects. One project of distinction is the Community Access through Remote Eyesight (CARE) study. The team is collaborating with UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute on a clinical study also funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

NECO student Bridget Peterson with CARE study participant

The CARE study examines how new and advanced mobile technology has helped foster a network of assistive mobile applications that support daily activities for people with low vision. There are currently more than 65 applications on the market for smartphone users, many of which are low-cost or non-existent. The Low Vision Lab describes the rise of assistive technology and how users interact with them in their recent publication, Why are vision assist mobile apps underused by visually impaired patients? (Optometry and Vision Science, 2022).

Upon enrollment in the CARE study, participants are randomly assigned a smartphone with one of three vision assist mobile apps (Aira, Seeing AI, or SuperVision+) for six months. The first phase is followed by an optional three-month period to use all three assistive apps. There are three questionnaire sessions during the six-month study phase to discuss general and mental health, difficulty with daily activities, self-efficacy, and perceived loneliness.

smartphone screen magnify text in a book

One of the smartphones provided to participants during the study

By going through the study, the team will explore how useful these helper applications can be. They hope to identify which apps are more accessible and how users, especially the elderly, can interact with them to achieve the best results in daily visual tasks. Working closely with users, they will determine any barriers to visual assistance that would prevent people from experiencing a positive outcome.

“Smartphone technology has the potential to be a key tool in helping visually impaired people maintain their independence by using built-in accessibility features and using mobile applications that can provide vision assistance,” the team shares in their latest publication.

The team characterizes each of the selected applications according to the benefit that users can experience when using them. Applications such as Aira and Supervision+ are services that connect to the user’s mobile device through magnification, contrast enhancement and speech output capabilities. This advance in technology helped usher in a new era in assistive devices. For many with vision impairment, relying on a device already integrated into their daily lives can significantly improve not only how they interact with the world, but also how the world interacts with them.

About apps

Air is a professional live, human-to-human support service. Using the camera on the participant’s smartphone, a trained officer assists by visually interpreting their surroundings. The service is available 24/7 and offers subscriptions at different levels, from 30 minutes per month to 700 minutes per month.

See artificial intelligence is a free app that tells the world for visually impaired or blind people. It was developed by Microsoft for iOS and uses optical character recognition to read aloud any typed or handwritten text. It also uses the device’s camera to identify people and objects and then audibly describe them.

Supervision+ was developed at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary and is the only magnifier app on the market that offers exceptional live image stabilization capability. It also provides features such as freezing high resolution images for examining detail and options to change the contrast from black on white to white on black.

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