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Low vision technology and accessibility

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Luisa Ferronato
Manager, Assistive Technology Services
Vision Australia

The past decade has seen considerable shifts in the way we all use technology. For people with low vision, this is not necessarily a new phenomenon. For some time, low vision specific technology has been used to facilitate access to print and electronic information.

The newer phenomenon is that an increasing number of technological products available to the wider population are now integrating features that help those with low vision. This article gives a brief overview of the technology specifically designed for people with low vision as well as the `mainstream' technologic devices that can also serve as low vision aids.

Desktop video magnifiers

Desktop video magnifiers are versatile and effective tools, granting those with low vision accessibility to reading and writing materials. Traditionally, these devices use a video camera to magnify text positioned on a moveable tray. Although the basic concept of the video magnifier remains unchanged, in the past 25 years, we have seen improvements in image quality, features, aesthetics and design.

Desktop video magnifiers now employ high-definition LCD and LED technology in widescreen format. Text can be magnified to very high levels (75x) without distortion. Magnifiers can be customised to please any individual's viewing preferences. Numerous brands are now available in Australia at competitive prices, including Enhanced Vision, Freedom Scientific, Humanware, Optelec, Telesensory and Zoomax.

As demand for smaller products has grown in recent years, desktop video magnifiers have diversified. The traditional X-Y moving tray is sometimes replaced with a small camera unit that takes up much less desk space. For example, the Acrobat LCD 3-in-1 Electronic Magnifier from Enhanced Vision, Freedom Scientific's Onyx Deskset portable video magnifier or the SmartView 360 video magnifier from Humanware. These types of video magnifiers feature moveable camera heads so that distant objects can also be magnified on the screen. The technology is particularly helpful for low vision students who need to view whiteboards or presentations. (Figure 1)

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Figure 1. The Humanware Smartview 360 features a moveable camera
head for near and distance viewing   Photo: Humanware

Hand-held video magnifiers

A wide range of hand-held video magnifiers is available. These have become very popular in recent years, particularly as prices have gone down. Increased portability means that a person with low vision can take advantage of the benefits of electronically magnifying and enhancing the contrast of printed material when they are on the go, for example, reading labels while shopping, or reading bus timetables or restaurant menus.

A number of hand-held models, such as the `i-loview 7 HD' and Enhanced Vision Pebble (Figure 2), offer a distance viewing option. A standard feature for many models is the freeze frame or snapshot function, where an image can be captured and then magnified for viewing. This is handy for the person with low vision trying to read print that is not presented at eye level, for example, product and price labels on the top shelf of a hardware store.

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Figure 2. Enhanced Vision Pebble

Some hand-held video magnifiers, including the Zoomax Snow can be connected to a large, flat screen television. This allows the person with low vision to magnify the print to even larger sizes, similar to those found with traditional desktop video magnifiers described above.

Merging magnification technology with scanning technology

In efforts to reduce visual fatigue and even motion sickness that can be experienced by users of video magnifiers, some low vision technology manufacturers have incorporated text scanning (optical character recognition or OCR) technology into video magnifiers, such as the Da Vinci by Enhanced Vision and the ClearView+ Speech by Optelec. Not only is the text magnified, it is also scanned and read aloud and automatically scrolls while the text is highlighted so that the individual can process the print both visually and aurally.

Computer access

Video magnifiers primarily assist in reading print information. While they can be used for handwriting tasks, computers are the tool of choice for many people with low vision who need to generate material. There is a long tradition of computer systems having in-built accessibility features for people with low vision. For example, the Microsoft Windows operating system has allowed the user to adjust the contrast and size of fonts and icons for many years.

While this feature provided inconsistent results, for some, it was adequate. Most people needed more, which led to the development of customised screen magnification software solutions. These products allow everything on the computer screen to be magnified, regardless of the application running. They feature `font smoothing' functions which prevent text from appearing pixelated at higher levels of magnification. They also allow greater customisation of colour contrast settings, as well as the size and contrast of the mouse point. Brands commonly used in Australia are ZoomText (by AI Squared) and MAGic (by Freedom Scientific).

In recent years, Microsoft and Apple have considerably improved the in-built magnification and contrast features of their computer operating systems. Both now offer a full-screen magnification option that is beneficial to the person with low vision.

Smartphones and tablets

The improvements in the low vision accessibility features found in computer operating systems today can also be found in another technological tool prolific in today's society, the smartphone.

For the less technologically-interested person with low vision, the basic big-button mobile phones with large screen fonts are a popular option. Featuring high-contrast type, these phones are easy to use and relatively inexpensive. Even big-button fixed-line phones have features that enable it to read back numbers and names in the address book or caller ID. (Figure 3)

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Figure 3 Oricom Pro-610 big-button cordless phone

For those requiring feature-packed devices, popular smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and newer Android phones do not leave the person with low vision behind. They feature full-screen magnification for those who need it, in addition to the facility to invert colour contrast settings. Of use to many with low vision, the pinch and zoom finger-thumb gestures used on these touch screens allow for easier web browsing with the ability to magnify content on the screen as required. The Apple devices have a beneficial in-built `Reader' function in the Safari web browser.

Tapping this button removes all the visual noise from a web page so that only the content is visible, without all the advertisements and graphics—an example of `mainstream accessibility' benefitting all, regardless of their level of vision.

These zoom and magnification features are standard in the Apple iPad and other tablets. The larger screens allow more content to fit, which many people with low vision find easier to access. E-book readers, such as the Kindle and iBooks on the iPad include functions to enlarge the size of the text, to invert the text so that it is white text on a black background (reducing glare) and even to read the text aloud.

One of the most exciting developments in smartphone and tablet technologies is the diverse array of apps that are becoming available. There are now apps that allow the phone or tablet to be turned into a video magnifier (VisionAssist, by Slinkyware), a barcode scanner for identifying everyday products in the pantry (GoScan by GS1 Australia), a scanner to scan and read printed materials (DocuScan Plus by Serotek Corporation), and a library of books that can have the print enlarged or converted to audio (iBooks by Apple).

These devices are becoming easier to use through further enhancements in voice recognition technology. While this is yet to take the place of using a computer keyboard for involved tasks, for simple tasks, such as sending a text message, operating by voice can save the person with low vision a lot of time and frustration. They no longer need to manipulate some sort of push button/scroll wheel/track pad/keyboard data entry.

Voice recognition in Apple iOS devices (through the Siri app) and in the new Microsoft Surface tablet are very useful for the person with low vision.

From custom-designed readings aids, such as video magnifiers to smartphones and tablets, we are seeing more options available to people with low vision in the realm of technology. While the levels of choice do not always closely match those of their fully-sighted counterparts, technology, particularly mainstream technology, is heading in the right direction.

Vision Australia offers people with low vision advice and support on suitable technology options. The Low Vision Clinic service operates throughout metropolitan and regional areas of Victoria, NSW/ACT and Queensland. For more information contact Vision Australia, 1300 84 72 66 or visit www.visionaustralia.org.

Product Price incl GST
Zoomax Snow $430
Enhanced Vision Pebble $650
Freedom Scientific Ruby $950
i-loview7 Full HD (near and distance) $1,299
Compact 5HD (near and distance) $1,769

Price guide for hand-held video magnifiers



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