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Last week, at the American Academy of Optometry Annual Meeting and Expo, southern California-based Eyedaptic announced the release of its latest smart glasses to enhance sight for the visually impaired.

The Eye5 is the latest iteration within the assistive technology startup’s smart glasses pipeline and brings several game-changing features to the market – including an extremely lightweight highly wearable form factor, AI-powered sight assistance and superior optics thanks to advanced pixel density within the device’s OLED display.

Like most low vision wearables and despite the technological complexity under the hood, the principle behind the EYE5 is a relatively simple one.

The glasses’ external camera captures live images from the outside world, rearranges and enhances the pixels and then displays them on the device’s internal screens. The wearer can then further enhance the image according to their needs in a variety of ways through magnification or adjusting lighting and contrast settings.

Wearing the glasses, patients with retinal diseases such as Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and Diabetic Retinopathy may experience visual acuity improvements of up to six lines on a standard eye chart. They also have a hands-free option for accessing daily tasks such as reading, watching TV, grocery shopping and using a computer.

Several key features set the Eye5 apart from the competition, most notably the device’s extremely lightweight form factor – weighing in at less than 3 oz.

This means that wearers of the EYE5 can still walk around safely while using the device as it does not block peripheral vision which is essential for navigation.

Light years ahead

The lightweight form factor is partially achieved by placing most of the device’s computing power into a separate companion smartphone and because it is based on Augmented Reality (AR) technology, rather than the bulkier more obtrusive headsets associated with virtual reality (VR).

This was made possible by Eyedaptic partnering with Augmented Reality Glasses manufacturer Rokid who provide the hardware for the EYE5 – enabling Eyedaptic to focus on assistive software and an accessible user interface.

The company currently holds six patents related to Hybrid-See Through AR for low vision rehabilitation.

More broadly, Eyedaptic planting its flag firmly on the AR side of the fence speaks to a wider schism within the nascent low vision wearables industry.

The market is less than ten years old but has been supercharged in recent years by the mainstream commercialization of several critical components – namely the proliferation of miniature camera and display systems brought about by the smartphone revolution, as well as advancements in VR technology.

Some players in the market such as IrisVision, London-based Give Vision, Vision Buddy and Zoomax continue to use virtual reality headsets, while others like OXSIGHT, eSight and Eyedaptic favor slimmer more lightweight devices.

The rehabilitation market is additionally complex due to the differing range of low vision conditions that can occur, alongside varying consumer tastes and preferences.

Current orthodoxy states that immersive virtual reality still wins out for tasks related to entertainment such as watching TV but the more lightweight cosmetically acceptable appearance of AR may hold greater promise for enjoying social activities and mixing with others.

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In the great AR vs VR debate for low vision, which is mirrored across wider society in consumer retail and industrial markets alike, Eyedaptic CEO Jay Cormier does not, for one moment, doubt that his company is backing the right horse.

Addressing the fact that VR headsets prevent the wearer from mobilizing and can only be used for sedentary activities, Cornier says, “We have a firm belief that immersive VR has very limited use cases so we are completely behind the smart glasses format and form factor.

“We see this as an essential element for making low vision wearables more mainstream. The only advantage of virtual reality was that it could get you to market earlier because the technology was slightly ahead of AR but that is now changing.”

Additional standout features of the EYE5 are its intuitive use of artificial intelligence and EyeSwitch controls that allows the user to change the input camera.

The former builds on Eyedaptic’s auto-zoom feature which was present in earlier devices and allowed the camera to automatically zoom in on text as soon as it was identified. The EYE5 has extended this feature to human faces to make social interactions more fluid and inclusive.

EyeSwitch allows the wearer to switch between the camera mounted to the glasses and the higher-quality camera present on the smartphone control unit which offers users even more detail and enhanced acuity.

Going mainstream

As novel as this feature is, it speaks to a wider issue that continues to dog the low vision wearables market and frustrate users.

This is that, despite a clear and important low vision use case, in 2022 the best mini cameras continue to exist in smartphones for photo sharing and not in glasses to help the visually impaired see better.

Nonetheless, Cormier believes this is nothing more than a temporary lag and that it’s only a matter of time before high-end cameras become ubiquitous and far more accessible.

“We always want to take advantage of the latest and best hardware but for us, it’s all about the software. At some point, the hardware will consolidate across the market and it’s the software that’s going to be the key differentiator for the best user experience,” says Cormier.

When one considers the billions of dollars the likes of Apple and Meta are currently pumping into electronic eyewear, with industry experts continuing to insist that the market remains volatile and unpredictable – it’s hard to disagree with Cormier’s approach.

For the time being, it continues to fall on niche assistive technologies like Eyedaptic’s to keep reminding consumers and Big Tech alike that, whether it’s augmented or virtual – today, the decades-long sci-fi dream of wearable camera vision for the legally blind is very much a reality.

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