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Researchers Develop Camera for the Blind

A team of scientists at MIT has developed a camera that allows the sight-impaired to take and see photos. The recent demonstration of the device comes two decades after Elizabeth Goldring, a senior fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and colleagues began work on a "seeing machine."

The results have evolved from Goldring's initial inspiration, a large diagnostic device costing some $100,000, to a $4,000 desktop version, to the current seeing machine, which is portable and inexpensive. "We can make one for under $500," Goldring said.

Although the device can be connected to any visual source, such as a video camera or desktop computer, Goldring, who is completely blind in one eye, especially enjoys using it with a photo camera. "When someone has a diminished sense, the inability to express yourself with that sense can be frustrating," she said. By taking photos, "I feel I'm able to express myself visually with my blind eye, and there's value in that, I think."

Goldring's idea for the seeing machine began with a visit to her optometrist. At the time, she was completely blind. To determine if she had any healthy retina left, technicians peered into her eyes with a scanning laser opthalmoscope, or SLO. With the machine they projected a simple image directly onto the retina of one eye, past the hemorrhages within the eye that contributed to her blindness.

She was able to see the test image. So she asked if they could write the word "sun." "And I was amazed that I was able to read a word!" Goldring said.

But although the SLO held promise for the broader blind public, it had serious drawbacks--including its prohibitive cost. Goldring determined to develop a more practical, accessible machine.

Collaboration with people such as Rob Webb, the SLO's inventor and a senior scientist at Harvard's Schepens Eye Research Institute, and dozens of MIT students led to development of the portable device. The machine is relatively inexpensive in part because it replaces the laser of the SLO with light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

The portable seeing machine is about five inches square and mounted on a flexible tripod that makes it easy to carry. A digital camera is attached to the top. The visual feed from the camera travels into the seeing machine to an ordinary LCD illuminated by LEDs. The visual data is then focused into a single "point" that travels into the eye. "This is not magnification," said Smithwick. "What makes this work is focusing the data into a tiny spot of light."

Plans are underway to test the device at the Low Vision Clinic at the Joslin Diabetes Center's Beetham Eye Institute in Boston.

This work was also supported by NASA and by MIT's School of Architecture + Planning, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and Council for the Arts.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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