LED-grid glasses could help partially sighted people to see

Scientists at Oxford University have created a pair of electronic glasses to help people with sight-destroying diseases see their surroundings again.

The device uses grids of LED lights, placed in front of the eyes, to represent nearby objects to individuals who have lost almost all their vision.

A team from Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, led by Dr Stephen Hicks, has developed a prototype version of the glasses and is presenting its research at this week’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London.

‘Most people who lose their sight do so through age or disease,’ explained Iain Wilson of the Nuffield Department. ‘A lot of people can still see contrast, even if they can’t see their hand in front of their face.’

Stereoscopic cameras attached to the glasses’ rims capture visual and depth information. Software then processes this data by recognising objects of interest and representing them as simple patterns, with brighter lights signalling nearer objects.

Future versions of the technology could use different colours to indicate different objects, for example, people or road signs, detected using software similar to that of the Xbox Kinect motion-capture gaming machine.

It will also use smaller integrated cameras to make the glasses more comfortable, while mobile phones are likely to be powerful enough to run the software, eliminating the need for a separate computer system.

If the user turns their head, a gyroscope will indicate which direction they are facing and a few seconds’ worth of memory will mean the system doesn’t have to recapture the data if they turn back quickly, speeding up the processing.

A big part of the development will involve making the glasses more user-friendly and closer in appearance to real glasses, rather than being an obvious prosthetic.

‘Our physics department in Oxford is working on making the substrate that the LEDs are mounted on more translucent, so that you can see through it,’ said Wilson.

‘The technologies involved are quite common. The main challenge is asking what is going to be useful for blind people, what sort of problems do they have day to day.

‘They’re never going to be able to see brilliantly but this is about improving their quality of life. There are lots of technologies we can throw in there, but are we going to overwhelm them?’

Patient trials are due to start in the next few months, testing the feasibility of the device for people with diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.