"Smart glasses" that provide a new set of eyes for the visually impaired are being tested in public for the first time.
The devices use a pair of video cameras to enhance partially sighted patient’s residual vision to deliver an all-important sense of depth that can prevent users colliding with objects such as lamp posts or tripping over kerbs and steps.
The glasses are being trialled by 30 visually impaired volunteers at testing venues in Oxford and Cambridge, where they will navigate through specially constructed obstacle courses, while a handful of users are also trying out the devices in public by mingling with shoppers and tourists in the centre of Oxford.
Dr Stephen Hicks, of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Oxford University, who led development of the glasses, said: "The idea of the smart glasses is to give people with poor vision an aid that boosts their awareness of what's around them – allowing greater freedom, independence and confidence to get about, and a much improved quality of life.
"We eventually want to have a product that will look like a regular pair of glasses and cost no more than a few hundred pounds – about the same as a smart phone."
The device consists of a pair of video cameras mounted in a headset, a pocket-sized computer processor, and software that projects images of close-by objects onto displays in the see-through eye pieces.
The software interprets nearby surroundings to make important objects such as kerbs, tables, chairs or groups of people stand out more clearly and, in some cases, details such as facial features can become easier to see making social interaction more natural. The glasses also work well in low light and can be used to overcome night blindness.
Of the more than 300,000 severely sight impaired people in the UK, it is believed about a third could benefit from the technology, including sufferers of sight-loss conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and optic neuropathies.
Twenty volunteers with a range of eye conditions and levels of vision took part in preliminary tests of an earlier version of the glasses conducted last year by the Oxford team, which found they quickly adapted to the devices, and those with the poorest vision were found to experience the greatest benefit.
Ian Cairns, 43, a London marketing agency copywriter who was diagnosed with the inherited eye condition choroideremia at the age of 12, tried out the smart glasses in Oxford's Covered Market.
After donning the headset for the first time outside a cafe, he said: "It's.. like the Lord of the Rings when he puts the ring on. And sees things in a new way.. That tablecloth is looking lovely. It's getting the pattern of the tablecloth. It's like I've wandered into an 80s pop video."
Ian, who has an area of central vision left in each eye and started using a cane around three years ago, added: "The glasses could really help with a lot of day-to-day challenges I'm facing in getting around or walking down the street. I do still have some sight.
"What is great about these glasses is that you can see through them and make the most of the vision you've got. They add to what you see with extra information. It's like having a sixth sense, an extra superpower (though it's what most people do every day) – knowing where to look and pick out objects from what's around you. It's very exciting."
The trials are being conducted with support from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
Steve Tyler, head of innovation and development at the RNIB, said: "RNIB has been supporting Dr Stephen Hicks and the researchers at Oxford University to determine the potential of these smart glasses, and to organise trials with volunteers.
"We are excited about the potential these glasses have to improve the way blind and partially sighted people can go about their everyday lives – walking down busy streets, visiting the shops, watching out for obstacles – simple tasks like this could be made much easier.
"It's clear that technology will continue to make huge breakthroughs in increasing independence for people with sight loss when out and about, and RNIB welcomes the development of innovative solutions such as this."