Sci-Fi: The Top Ten Israeli Inventions That Allow The Blind To ‘See’

By Shiri Wasserman, NoCamels July 16, 2014 Comments

Reading someone’s facial expressions; looking at the night sky, or browsing the internet – these are mundane tasks that hardly require our attention. But not everyone can call them routine; for the 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired, these simple tasks are nearly impossible.

Known as the Startup Nation, Israeli startups have now taken their expertise in innovation and technology to create revolutionary tools for the blind and visually impaired.

Here are ten Israeli companies whose vision is brightening the lives of those who cannot see.

EyeMusic: Seeing is hearing

Do you know what a square sounds like? You may argue that shapes don’t have sounds, but the Israeli-developed EyeMusic application was designed in order to help the blind “see” these common visual perceptions through sound. EyeMusic conveys the sounds of common shapes and colors by using soundscapes – assigning different musical notes and pitches to shapes and colors. A diagonal line, for instance, sounds like a chord of rising music notes. The EyeMusic application, available for iOS and Android, is based on the 2013 research by Prof. Amir Amedi and uses a simple algorithm to convert images from the device’s camera into a complicated array of sounds. Over time, users learn to differentiate between sounds and associate them with particular shapes, colors, and eventually objects.

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OrCam: The Google Glass competitor

Artificial vision technology called OrCam is a tiny camera that clips onto your glasses, similar to Google Glass. When users direct their glass’ vision at newspaper articles, labels, or a street sign, OrCam verbally identifies what they’re looking at and trabslates it into spoken words. The OrCam device is connected to a small pocket-size computer that stores the verbally interpreted information and is able to remember different objects, places, and people that the device has seen before, with the help of special algorithms. Orcam can also connect with hearing aids and cochlear implants, so that it not only serves the blind and visually impaired, but also the deaf-blind and mute. Earlier this year, Orcam Technologies received a $20 million investment from Intel for the development of its technology, which is based on research conducted by Prof. Amnon Shashua of the Hebrew University, also the founder of the successful Israeli startup Mobileye.

Nano Retina: The dream of restoring sight to the blind, realized

Restoring sight to the blind is for many a dream that may soon become a scientific reality with Nano Retina’s retinal implant technology. Macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness for individuals 60 years and older, is caused when a specific section of the eye’s retina dealing with object recognition begins to deteriorate. In order to combat the visual decline, Nano Retina’s founder Yossi Gross designed a miniature chip to replace the tiny but critical retinal part with an electric one. The implanted chip converts light into electric signals, which are then transmitted to the brain, with every image broken down into 600-pixel images and 100 different shades of grey, enabling sight in basic digital camera quality. Nano Retina completed its first clinical trial in 2010, in which 11 blind people were able to recognize surrounding objects, and hopes to be on the market in Europe by 2016 with the help of its investors Sony and Medtronic.

Bionic contact lens: Seeing is feeling

Scientists at Bar Ilan University developed a unique bionic contact lens based on the classical method of touch-based Braille reading. According to Prof. Zeev Zalevsky who headed the research team, there are 600 times more sensors in the cornea of one’s eye than in one’s fingertips, which are used for reading Braille. Therefore, the contact lens that Zalevsky and his team created allows the blind to see by transmitting visual information collected using a tiny camera to the bionic contact lens, which then sends signals to the cornea and sensory brain areas. The lens figuratively ‘presses’ images onto the eye’s surface through electrical signals, at which point the brain deciphers what the wearer is looking at, enabling them to see the full picture. Zalevsky believes that this contact will primarily  help those who are blind from birth, giving them the ability to really ‘”feel” images without the need for invasive procedures.

Project RAY: Taking the ‘eye’ out of IPhone

The invention of the smartphone has made life much easier, and thanks to Project RAY’s revolutionary technology, this sight-driven gadget will make the lives of the blind easier too. Project RAY’s vision-free smartphone was designed around touch and speech, letting the user select which application or message they want to open using a sliding motion, instead of the usual tapping, together with a voice and vibration function. In addition, the device orients itself around the user’s fingers, making it easy to search for applications, send text messages and even post on Facebook. Project RAY is also equipped with sensors, text-to-speech, and audio feedback features, as well as a public transportation navigation system, an emergency orientation system and a library for the blind that features audio magazines and books.

Holography: Restoring sight using ‘Google Glass’ for the blind

An inherited degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) causes the gradual degeneration of light sensing cells and ultimately leads to vision impairment or blindness later in life. Now researchers at the Technion Institute of Technology have found a futuristic way of restoring light sensitivity to vision cells by using a computer-driven technology called holography. In what the researchers call optogenetics, a light-sensitive protein is taken from another organism and inserted into a target cell to  photosensitize that cell, making it capable of sight. A bright light source is then projected on the cell, like a laser or  holograph, activating the cell and enabling the RP patient to see. The team hopes to develop a headset similar to Google Glass that will be able to convert visual images into light that would allow the hundreds of thousands of people with RP to finally see past the shadows.

BlindAid: Letting the blind feel out their surroundings

When exploring new places, the blind rely almost entirely on the people around them to get to know their surroundings. However, Dr. Orly Lavan of Tel Aviv University has created a software tool to help the blind navigate through new and unfamiliar places with ease. The BlindAid 3D haptic device, connected to an existing joystick, digitizes spatial information and virtually maps it out. As the user approaches a wall, sidewalk curb, or other obstacles, the joystick connected to the device stiffens, letting the users know the boundaries of their surrounding. The program can also be designed to emit sounds, like a telephone ring, when the user approaches a reception desk, or a car speeding off as they near a vehicle.

Implanted telescope for macular degeneration

A tiny telescope designed by Dr. Isaac Lipshitz is on its way to dramatically improve the most common cause of blindness in the elderly: age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The miniature telescope is implanted into one eye and works by enlarging central images over the damaged retina, while the other eye supplies the peripheral vision for mobility. This breakthrough technology is already helping the elderly in the United States not only see better but recognize facial expressions and nuances they would otherwise miss.

Inpris’s UpSense Keyboard: Creating a language of movement

Bulky external Braille keyboards are a hassle for the tech-savy, but now Nissan Yaron and his father Ben-Etzion invented an efficient keyboard that enables the blind to freely type on tablets and smartphones. Designed by the father-son team, UpSense Keyboard allows users to create their own intuitive language of finger gestures that their device is able to interpret and remember. In addition, the UpSense Keyboard can be activated at any point on the device’s screen, eliminating the difficulty endured by the visually impaired with finding the right spot on the screen to start typing. Recently, Inpris was nominated for the CSS Design Awards and was deemed by President Shimon Peres “a brilliant idea.”

Notal Vision ForeseeHome AMD Monitor

We’ve already mentioned that macular degeneration in the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, affecting nearly 10 million people in America alone, but one Israeli technology is already working towards minimizing this statistic. Founded in 2000, Notal Vision created the first home-based system to monitor patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) between eye exams, which has proven effective in detecting important visual changes at an earlier stage. The system posts the patient’s current data on a secure website where the physician can review it at any time to monitor their progress. In 2009, Notal received FDA approval for its ForeseeHome AMD Monitor and it is currently being sold, with great success, out of its St. Louis headquarters.

Photo: picture of handsome businessman with digital glasses on Bigstock

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