At least 2.2 billion people globally have a near or distance visual impairment, the World Health Organization states in its recent report. The adverse influence visual impairments have on people's lives is manifold. Children with early vision impairments frequently experience delayed motor, language, emotional, social, and cognitive development and may struggle to perform academically. Adults have higher chances of developing anxiety and depression and are more inclined to social isolation. Near and distance visual impairments have an economic impact, too. Lancet Global Health reports: the annual global costs of productivity losses associated with vision impairment from uncorrected myopia and presbyopia alone are estimated at $ 244 billion and $ 25.4 billion, respectively. As providers of healthcare technology solutions, how can we use modern tech to make the lives of people with visual impairments easier, safer, and more independent? We've explored the topic and shared our findings below.

The market of assistive technology for the visually impaired

The global assistive technology market spans a range of assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices and software that help people with seeing disabilities live self-sufficient lives. In 2020, the market was valued at $3.93 billion. It is projected to reach $7.99 billion by 2028, growing at a CAGR of 8.30%. The key drivers underpinning this growth include:
  • The increased incidents of visual impairment and blindness. The surge traces back to (1) an aging population prone to developing eye ailments, like glaucoma and cataracts, (2) delays and suspensions in essential eye procedures due to the COVID-19 outbreak
  • Recent technological developments. Lasting advancements in medical artificial intelligence, computer visions, and the Internet of Medical Things make it possible to develop a broader range of assistive solutions at a lower cost
  • The rising awareness around assistive technology. Governments, corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are getting more involved and setting out initiatives to help visually impaired people

Major assistive technology market players

The following companies make up a significant share of the assistive technology market:
  • Саmbіum Lеаrnіng. Cambium provides a broad range of educational solutions, including assistive technology for blind and visually impaired students. Its essential product, Kurzweil 3000, facilitates reading (text-to-speech and text magnification), comprehension (voice notes and built-in translation), and writing (speech-to-text).
  • Аmеrісаn Тhеrmоfоrm. The company is the largest provider of hardware equipment for the blind and visually impaired, such as braille printers, duplicators, and writers.
  • Аmеdіа Corporation. Japan-based assistive technology provider, Amedia offers a number of assistive technology solutions, including magnifying devices, watches and clocks, optical character recognition software, and navigation solutions.
  • HumanWare Group. The company offers all kinds of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired, from electronic magnifiers to audio assistants to braille devices
Other significant assistive technology providers include Еѕѕіlоr, Ассеѕѕ Іngеnuіtу, VFО, LЅ&Ѕ LLС, Dоlрhіn Соmрutеr Ассеѕѕ, Lоw Vіѕіоn Іntеrnаtіоnаl, and VіеwРluѕ.

Seven assistive technology applications for the blind and visually impaired

Let's now see in more detail which assistive technology solutions are getting momentum today and how they help people with visual impairments.

Smart canes

Equipped with sensors and a technology-powered brain, smart canes help people with visual impairments feel safer when navigating through the city. Not only do smart canes recognize and notify of obstacles, but they also integrate with smartphones, which opens up additional possibilities, from voice-assisted GPS navigation to the real-time description of places and objects a person is passing by. So, a person using a smart cane may set a destination before leaving home and get voice directions as they walk. Along the way, the cane will then notify the person that they are, for instance, passing by their favorite Starbucks or heading toward the needed bus stop. The most popular smart cane on the market is the one developed by WeWALK. Paired with the WeWALK mobile app, the smart cane eases up daily navigation with voice commands, public transportation info, and object detection.

Reading assistance software

Reading assistance apps make it easier for the visually impaired to use computers, smartphones, and other devices, allowing for a more convenient experience. Such apps transform the text displayed on screen into a form a visually impaired person is comfortable with — tactile, auditory, or a combination of both. Reading assistants with acoustic outputs rely on speech synthesizers. Those with tactile outputs make use of refreshable braille displays.
The way a user interacts with a reading assistant may look as follows. A person presses a specific combination of keys on a computer keyboard or a braille board. The software processes the command and returns a voice message (e.g., a page of text read out loud) or activates the actuators controlling the braille tablet. Advanced reading assistance applications carry out more tasks, like locating highlighted text, identifying the active choice in the menu, or reading the text displayed in a specific color. The widely used text-to-speech applications are JAWS screen reader, Kurzweil education, BRLTTY, CDesk Compass, COBRA, Dolphin Guide, Eye-Pal® Ace, NVDA, Speakup, and others.

Speech-to-text software

Speech-to-text software helps people with visual impairments write, study, and communicate socially. As implied by its name, speech-to-text solutions convert natural speech into text at up to 99% accuracy. To do so, the software breaks an audible message down into phonemes and maps them to the database to select the best-fit written equivalent. Modern voice recognition solutions boast additional features, like speech adaptation. They offer a capability to customize the speech recognition algorithm so that it accurately transcribes rare and domain-specific terms or, for example, automatically converts numbers into dates, currency, and phone numbers. The leading voice recognition solutions popular among people with visual impairments span Dragon Dictation, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, J-Say Pro, and Windows Speech-to-text.

Smart glasses

Assistive technology vendors draw on the power of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things to develop smart glasses. One example comes from Eyedaptic, a US-based provider of AR-powered glasses. The product boasts auto-zoom, contrast enhancement, and magnification features. It runs on adaptive vision software, helping those with central vision loss lead more productive lives with the comfort of an analog pair.
Another example of a company offering smart assistive technology for the visually impaired is Envision. There's no better way to describe the company's smart glasses than how they put it themselves — "Envision Glasses are AI for your eye." The statement is supported by an impressive list of features, from text-to-speech and video calling to real-time scene description and face recognition and beyond.
The developers of OrCam, in turn, have taken on a mission to turn every glasses into smart ones. The company offers a small wireless camera that attaches to the arm of any glasses with a magnet. A wearer can tap the camera's touch bar to take a picture of what's in front of them. The camera would then decipher the image and communicate the information audibly through a speaker located just above the wearer's ear. The OrCam can identify plenty of objects — from barcodes to money to street signs. It recognizes faces, too.

Virtual reality headsets

Virtual reality is also being used to help people with low vision see better. In this case, however, instead of immersing people in surreal experiences, VR recreates a virtual copy of the real world — the one adapted for perception by people with vision impairments. One example of VR-powered assistive technology for the visually impaired comes from IrisVision. The company has created a device that combines the functions of a smartphone and a VR headset to help people navigate the world more independently. So, a smartphone's camera captures what a visually impaired person is looking at and remaps the scene to enhance its visibility. The wearer thus sees a magnified and enhanced picture of reality. The device is powered with a touchpad that lets users zoom in and out to see objects at a comfortable distance. VR-powered assistive technology solutions help people with glaucoma and tunnel vision, too. VR helps project a scene onto the smaller area of the retina that's still functioning.

Smart home solutions

Smart home systems powered with voice control help people with visual impairments do a variety of daily tasks:
  • Turn on and turn off the lights
  • Control cooling and heating systems
  • Lock and unlock doors
  • Control TVs, vacuums, lawnmowers, and other home appliances
  • Notify owners of any events taking place at their homes
Smart home assistants can also help manage one's schedule, put together shopping lists, order groceries, play music, make phone calls, and send messages.

Key challenges to beware when rolling out assistive technology for the visually impaired

To win the hearts of end users, the developers of assistive technology solutions should pay special attention to the following aspects:
  • Developing assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired calls for unprecedented levels of collaboration between stakeholders Developers of assistive technology often fail to consider the actual needs of individuals with disabilities because of a lack of involvement from end users, their caregivers, clinicians, and scientists. Such a shortcoming results in about a third of assistive technology users quitting their devices. To make sure your device addresses the actual needs of people with visual impairments, bring them into the design process. Remember, too, that the impairments experienced by people with the same disability can vary considerably. So, assistive technology developed to meet the needs of an artificially homogenized population may fail to address the individual needs. Communicating with clinicians is vital, too, as the effectiveness of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired depends much on the context it's applied in. Therefore, thoroughly assess the surroundings and situations the developed software or device will be used in and reflect those in the product design.
  • Devices and software for people with seeing disabilities should be designed with risks in mind Developing assistive technology for the visually impaired, take adequate measures to prevent risks bound to using such tech. Carry out comprehensive risk assessment to ensure the assistive solution is safe in its intended use. Powering your product with safety-related functionality, such as fall detection, GPS localization, or emergency calls can help mitigate potential risks, too. Another aspect to think over is compatibility with medical care. Make sure the technology does not interfere with a user's medical treatment.
  • Assistive technology for the visually impaired must be convenient and affordable The specifics of assistive technology are bound to high development costs, small batches, and high prices. However, with technologies evolving, it gets easier to develop assistive devices that are simple to use and don't cost as much. For example, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan have taken on a challenge to develop a refreshable braille tablet that looks like a Kindle and costs ten times less than a traditional braille display with similar functionality. Here's how they battled the cost and usability issues:
So, think over the usability aspect and draw on the power of modern tech to make your device convenient and easy to use.

To sum it all up

With governments and tech leaders launching accessibility programs, assistive technology for the visually impaired is tiptoeing in the spotlight. Tech companies are drawing on the recent developments in artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and the Internet of Things to design next-gen solutions for people with seeing disabilities. Still, the market of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired calls for a broader range of convenient and affordable tools for those with low vision.
If you have your mind on developing assistive technology, contact our team to bring next-gen assistive technology to life together.