NECO explores advances in assistive technology

The Low Vision Lab at NECO is leading a research study focused on the accessibility of visual assist applications for people with low vision and other visual impairments.

For many people with visual impairments, everyday tasks become challenging when they interact with an inaccessible world. Tasks like navigating an outdated public transit system or identifying text on a menu can pose problems that people without visual impairments would not consider.

NECO’s Low Vision Lab is led by Dr. Nicole Ross directs and is currently enabling a number of innovative clinical research projects. One outstanding project is the Community Access through Remote Eyesight (CARE) study. The team is collaborating with UCLA’s Stein Eye Institute on a clinical trial 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 technologies have helped foster a network of assistive mobile applications that assist people with visual impairments in everyday tasks. There are currently more than 65 applications on the market for smartphone users, many ranging from cheap to free. In its recent publication, the Low Vision Lab describes the rise of assistive technologies and how users interact with them. Why Are Visual Assistive Mobile Apps Underused by Low Vision Patients? (Optometry and Vision Science, 2022).

Upon enrollment in the CARE study, participants will be randomly assigned a smartphone with one of three visual assistive 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 helper apps. There are three questionnaire sessions during the six-month study period to discuss mental and general health, difficulty with daily tasks, self-efficacy, and perceived loneliness.

Smartphone screen magnifies text in a book

One of the smartphones provided to participants during the study

As the study progresses, the team will explore how useful these supporting applications can be. They hope to find out which apps are the most accessible and how users, especially seniors, can interact with them to get the best results in daily visual tasks. By working closely with users, they will identify any visual support barriers that would prevent individuals from achieving a positive outcome.

“Smartphone technology has the potential to be a key tool to help people with low visual impairment maintain their independence by leveraging built-in accessibility features and using mobile applications that can provide visual support,” the team shares in its latest release with.

The team characterizes each of the selected applications based on the benefits that users can experience when using them. Applications like Aira and Supervision+ are services that connect to the user’s mobile device through magnification functions, contrast enhancement and voice output. This technological advance has helped herald a new era in assistive devices. For many with visual impairments, relying on a device that is already integrated into daily life can significantly improve not only how they interact with the world, but how the world interacts with them.

About the apps

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

see AI is a free app that tells the world to the visually impaired or blind. Developed by Microsoft for iOS, it uses optical character recognition to read typed or handwritten text aloud. It also uses the device’s camera to identify people and objects, and then acoustically describes those objects.

supervision+ Developed at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary, it is the only magnifier app on the market that offers an excellent live image stabilization feature. It also offers features like freezing images at high resolutions to examine details and options to change the contrast from black on white to white on black.

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