by Joel Zimba
From the Editor: Joel is best-known to many Monitor readers and Federationists as the man who supports the KNFB Reader. Of course his technical talent and his ability to evaluate technology and write about it isn’t limited to one product or even one subset of the field. Here is what he has to say about a new technology meant to bring some of the benefits of vision to those of us who are blind:
We all have expectations of technology. If Apple’s newest smartphone were to arrive on your doorstep requiring a couple of hours of assembly after reading a six-inch-thick manual, the backlash would be enormous. Especially in the last decade, the trend has been toward the actual working of a device giving way to the information or service provided by the gadget in question.
Wearable technology promises to become a part of your daily life; the actual operation will be barely noticeable. The interface of the technology itself will get out of the way and give you what you want when you want it. We are certainly not there yet, but it is coming. My recent experience with a product from OrCam hints of this.
For the last month, I have been using the MyEye 2.0 product from OrCam. This is a wearable device which will perform several services whether on command or automatically. It is a cliché to refer to convenience and ease-of-use as being “at the push of a button.” With MyEye 2.0, the button pushing is no more. Most of the services activate with the wave of a hand or by simply placing an object in view of the MyEye camera. The simple, real world gesture interface of MyEye makes it fun and easy to use. For example, the feature I use most often is to check the time by raising the back of my hand into view of the camera, as though checking a watch.
The OrCam MyEye 2.0 device has a couple of major components. The small head-mounted camera attaches magnetically to a mount which can be attached to your existing pair of glasses or to the glasses which ship with MyEye. A long cord connects the camera module, which also provides speech output to the control unit. This is a box which can clip to a belt or be carried in a bag. The control unit has a few controls including the on/off button and is where the rechargeable batteries are housed. While the camera mounts to the left or right side of your glasses, it is designed with an offset which lets it look directly ahead.
If this setup sounds unwieldy, I would have to agree. After having spent considerable time wearing the MyEye, I just could not get used to having a cable hanging down or tucked behind my ear. Fortunately, if the cord becomes tangled, the camera easily separates from the glasses. It clicks back in place magnetically with a satisfying thunk. Anticipating my dissatisfaction with the form factor of MyEye, the excellent OrCam representatives were eager to show me the newest version of their technology which eliminates the need for the control unit and cable. The next version of MyEye is no more than the camera unit itself and became available in mid-December.
By far, the most useful feature of MyEye has been text reading. Rather than taking a picture of text with a smartphone, you can simply hold a document in front of you and MyEye will begin reading after taking a picture. If edges are not found, Reading can be invoked by pointing toward the text to be read or by pressing a button on the control unit. While it is possible to navigate the text, the results are ephemeral. Re-reading a page is as easy or time-consuming as recognizing the same page again.
I was pleased with the things OrCam would read which were not printed documents. Room numbers worked often. Street signs proved to be surprisingly easy to read as long as there was proper light and the sign could be found in the first place. MyEye did not perform quite so well with text on rounded objects like cans. This shortcoming is made up for by the barcode recognition feature. A vast product database comes with MyEye. While some barcodes are unknown, the names of many common products are announced. Because MyEye is a stand-alone device, meaning it has no network connectivity (more on this later), only the names of products are announced. Preparation instructions or nutrition information cannot be cross-referenced.
For those times when barcodes or text will not suffice, MyEye can be trained to recognize objects. I did this successfully with compact disc cases—yes, I still have some. Spice containers also proved successful. The training process involves taking three pictures of the object at varying distances and with a changed background. While I typically identify such things with alternative methods, the use of MyEye is a plausible approach.
One of the challenges of this emerging technology is finding uses for new functionality. The ability to identify people is just such a case. After training MyEye to identify a few coworkers, I could have their names spoken to me when I looked toward them at a distance of around six feet. While interesting and fun, understanding how such a service would fit into my life is difficult. Perhaps in the future the next generation of facial identification would report the bearing and distance of a desired person in a crowd. With a data connection, I would like to see this be able to identify people without first adding them to MyEye by hand. Knowing if the mayor is still at the far end of the bar seems like a trivial request, but it is nearly impossible to determine independently using current artificial intelligence technology.
Interestingly, MyEye will guess a few details about unidentified people, like gender. While frequently correct, this extrapolation is allegedly made through identifying characteristics such as facial hair. If these details were reported rather than culturally-based stereotypes boiling down to a binary gender model, MyEye might be on to something.
OrCam provides a couple of other services. Currency identification works quite well with MyEye. I found it to be slower than popular smartphone apps but faster and easier than using the bill identifier devices. Color identification, which no device or app does well is just as questionable with MyEye.
This is not intended to be a thorough review of the OrCam product. Rather, I want to discuss the features which make OrCam unique. Many of the services provided by MyEye are available with other devices. OrCam has brought these services together in one package and made a user interface which is unlike any other. I believe the gestures such as pointing to text or holding up one hand to stop reading are groundbreaking and will set the stage for the wearable products of the future. Note that even with both hands occupied, it is possible to read text. Imagine carrying a package and wanting to place it in the proper bin. MyEye could make completing such a simple task much faster.
Where MyEye goes from here depends on who it believes its customer base to be. Unlike previous software releases, version 8, which became available in September of 2017, can be used by the blind. Still, it seems to be geared toward those with low vision or the newly blind. Given the aging population of the Western world, this is a sound marketing choice. As mentioned previously, the newest incarnation of MyEye is a fraction of the size and weight of MyEye 2.0. It contains basic Wi-Fi connectivity, which I hope to see augment its services in the future.
To learn more about MyEye 2.0 and other products from OrCam, go to www.orcam.com.