Blind people are being given the ability to 'see' again courtesy of a tiny camera that clips onto a pair of glasses and relays an audio description of their surroundings.
The miniature camera uses optical character-recognition technology in order to boost the ability of visually impaired users to read an email, newspaper article, menu or page in a book.
The device recognises text and reads it to the user using an earpiece that transmits sound. It can also be programmed to recognise faces and commercial products.
When using the device, the study participants were shown to perform significantly better than they had before.
The camera operates either by pointing at an item, tapping on it or pressing a trigger button. A wire attaches the device to a small pack containing the device's battery and computer which can be carried, either fitting into a pocket or attached to a belt.
"This device offers hope to patients who are beyond medical or surgical therapy for the condition. It is easily used and could potentially bring greater independence, particularly for older patients who are struggling with vision loss," said Mark J. Mannis, professor at the University of California who co-authored the study.
An increasing number of people suffer from age-related macular degeneration or advanced-stage glaucoma, two of the leading causes of vision loss among the elderly in the United States where an estimated 1.8 million Americans over 50 years old are affected.
The pilot study included 12 participants with low vision - six men and six women - with an average age of 62 between them, who had all experienced vision loss from a wide array of disorders.
In order to establish their baseline vision, the researchers assessed the participants' visual functioning using a 10-item test with patients using just their eye glasses and no low-vision aids for the assessment.
Initially, none of the participants were able to perform five of the 10 tasks: reading a message on an electronic device such as a smartphone or tablet, a newspaper article, menu, letter or page from a book.
After using the device for a week, all of the participants were able to perform nine of the 10 items on the test, with only one individual reporting difficulty in using the device.
"Patients with low vision often are often dependent on hand-held or electronic magnifiers, which may be somewhat cumbersome to use", said Elad Moisseiev, co-author of the study.
"This is the first independent clinical study to evaluate this new low-vision-aid device based on novel optical-character recognition technology. Our results show that it can be a very useful aid for patients with low vision in performing activities of daily living and increase their functional independence."