Sunday April 02, 2017

Vision for the legally blind

A legally blind woman paints using eSight glasses.

A legally blind woman paints using eSight glasses.

Listen 11:06

Of all the people who are considered blind, fewer than 15 per cent are totally sightless.

The rest, while considered legally blind, can actually see, at least to some degree.

And this is where Toronto startup eSight Eyewear comes in: helping legally blind people see better. And sure, eSight is a company with a product to sell. But it's also an example of innovation in the service of a useful aim.

It's not just another startup promising to solve a 'problem' we didn't even know we had.

There are already a host of assistive tools legally blind people use to help them complete tasks from white canes, to large-print books, to magnifiers, to text-to speech devices, and even guide dogs.

eSight aims to combine all of those tools that legally blind people use daily into a single, handsfree product.

And they look pretty cool, in a sort of Geordi La Forge kind of way.

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Jeff Fenton

Jeff Fenton, eSight's director of marketing, stopped by the Spark studio this week so we could check them out.

Jeff explains that the glasses work by showing each eye an OLED image of what's in front of the wearer, focusing that image on the part of the eye where a person's vision is strongest.

Because it's not a fully enclosed experience like a VR headset -- they allow for peripheral vision -- the eSight avoids causing the nausea that some people experience, he says.

The reaction of legally blind users has been a mix of "shock, expressions of 'Oh, my God," Jeff says.

Users have been able to play golf, navigate a transit system quickly, and even co-pilot a plane.

They're also wifi and bluetooth compatible -- with an HDMI port -- which allows users to see their computer screen in the glasses, or watch a movie, he adds.

The company has just released it's third generation of the glasses, which he says are sleeker, and feature a faster video response time.

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eSight glasses help a legally blind girl to see better. (eSight)

Although they cost $10,000 a unit, Jeff says the company will help users crowdfund the money to pay for it, he says, as well as offering different financing options.

But really, he says he would like to see government and insurance companies cover them as they would other medical assistive devices, especially when you consider all the devices they potentially replaced.

"It would be the right thing to do," he says.