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“Smart glasses” with new object recognition technology will help registered blind people navigate unfamiliar places

31 October 2013

A pair of “smart glasses” could help registered blind and partially sighted people navigate public places by translating signs into audible speech. A Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation was awarded today to Dr Stephen Hicks of the University of Oxford for the development of glasses that will improve the independence of thousands of people.

The vast majority of the registered blind people have some remaining sight, often limited to the perception of light and motion. Until now assistive technologies have been limited to guide dogs, canes and other relatively simple devices.

Over the past 3 years, Dr Hicks, supported by the NIHR i4i program, has developed a novel technology that makes use of a blind person’s residual vision to allow them to navigate freely and confidently. His “smart glasses” use cameras and software to detect nearby objects and present them in a simple and intuitive way onto the lenses of a pair of glasses.

The Royal Society Brian Mercer Award for Innovation will be used to develop the new software needed to include object and text recognition features in the glasses.

While the smart glasses Dr Hicks’ team is currently working on allow people to see nearby obstacles, the glasses do not provide any more information about the nature of those nearby objects. Dr Hicks hopes to use this award to implement software developed by Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award holder Professor Phil Torr at the University of Oxford that automatically identifies objects of interest in the nearby environment.

This technology would help wearers of the glasses to recognise actual objects such as a bus stop, doorway or personal item, and identifying them as such, rather than just noticing them as obstacles. This technology would also use the camera in the glasses to detect text in the real world, such as bus numbers, directions in stations or menus in restaurants, and translate these into audible speech.

Commenting on the award, Dr Hicks said:

“This is the beginning of a golden age for computer vision. We are seeing smart recognition technology in everything from cameras and mobile phones to self-driving cars. The latest research enables computers to not only see single objects like faces and words but understand whole scenes. The Royal Society's Brian Mercer Innovation award will allow us to incorporate this research into our glasses to help sight-impaired people deal with everyday situations much more easily.”

The RNIB estimate that there are over 2 million people in the UK with impaired vision and over 300,000 are registered blind from diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Dr Hicks’ invention is an affordable technology that has the potential to vastly increase their independence and quality of life.

Professor Anthony Cheetham, Vice President and Treasurer of the Royal Society said: “We are very proud to be able support Dr Hicks’ research and help him to take an exciting new step in his research. Dr Hicks’ work is truly inspirational; his invention has the potential to transform the lives of many.”

Dr Hicks will receive just under £50,000 from the Royal Society to develop the new software for inclusion in Version 2 of the glasses in 2015-16. The Brian Mercer Award for Innovation is a scheme for scientists who wish to develop an already proven concept or prototype into a near-market product ready for commercial exploitation.

Click here to find out more about Dr Hicks' research.