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Technology Advances And Eye Care – Part I: Phones

Time just seems to keep marching on, and with it we keep making advances in technology. Just 10 years – though that seems like a lifetime – ago, the height of cell phone technology was the Motorola “Razr”.


There were no “Smart phones”, the closest you could come were “PDA”s (Personal Data Assistants for the kiddies) and the original iPhone was still three years away.

Fast forward to today, and our cell phones are only incidentally related to the cell phones of the first decade of the 21st century. Sure we occasionally use them to make phone calls, but they are really pocket computers that we use for so much more.

And while we generally use our phones to text, email, surf the intergoogle, check our Facebook, or play games; there are also people and companies developing ways to use the power of smart phones to help those with impaired vision.

Low Vision? There’s An App For That

There are hundreds of thousands of apps out for iPhone, Android, and Windows (and Blackberry too, if those are still a thing). Most of them are silly ways to spend your spare time, however there more and more becoming available that can help those with low vision in their daily life.

  • Voice Recognition: Voice recognition features like Siri (iPhone), Google Now (Android), or Cortana (Windows), all use voice recognition technology to allow users to speak commands. Those commands can be web searches like “Search for ‘Rhinebeck Eye Care’”, queries such as “What is the weather forecast for today?”, or commands to open other applications like “send a text to_____”. These functions also have the ability to respond to queries verbally. By giving users the ability to operate their phones with only their voice, features like Siri, Google Now, and Cortana give those who can struggle to use a smart phone normally much greater independence.

  • Voice To Text: Related to the previous functions, voice to text apps or features allow users to speak their messages rather than type them out. While some proof-reading, and having to explicitly tell the phone what punctuation to use, may be required, some of the specialized Voice To Text apps have the ability to “learn” and understand you better with continued use.

  • Magnification: Smart phones also present a convenient option for those with presbyopia. Presbyopia is a difficulty focusing on near objects; for most that means an inability to read in dim light or small print. There are now applications (apps) for smart phones that can serve as lighted magnifying glasses allowing those who struggle to read small print to increase both the size and brightness of what they are trying to read. An app like that could be a real life – or at least eye – saver in a restaurant, which are generally dimly lit and use small print.

  • Text Enlargement: This isn’t exactly an app, but it is a common function on E-readers, tablets, and smart phones. Text enlargement allows users to enlarge text or images. Tablets and E-readers’ large, lighted screens, and ability to significantly increase text size, can make reading much easier for older individuals.

  • Optical Recognition: Similar to voice recognition, there are now apps for smart phones such as “Google Goggles” that can perform searches using pictures taken with the phone’s camera. While apps like Google Goggles struggle with identifying objects, they excel in understanding text, bar codes, or things of that nature. As well, there are also apps that can use a phone’s camera to identify colors for those who are color-blind.

The Braille Phone

Based in the United Kingdom, OwnFone is a company that produces simple customized cell phones. Their phones come per-programed with a limited number of contacts that can be accessed with a single touch to individual buttons. They are generally marketed to children (or rather parents of children) as a way to keep in contact without giving them the temptation of a full-function smart phone.

This past spring, OwnFone released the world’s first commercially available braille phone.

The braille phone uses 3-D printing technology – a technique that uses droplets of liquid plastic to build an object in the same way an inkjet printer uses droplets of ink to build a 2 dimensional image – to custom build small cell phones with braille keyboards.

(via google images)

(via google images)

Like their previous phones, OwnFone’s braille phones use individual buttons for each contact, with a maximum of six pre-programmed contacts. These phones are simple and affordable, starting at under $100.00, but they can be a crucial life-line for someone who is visually impaired.

As time keeps marching on, and technology keeps progressing, it looks like cell phones will only get more powerful and capable. Phones are now capable of making life easier for those with low-vision, or the visually impaired.

In Part II, we’ll take a look at what advances in technology could be just around the corner, and how they could impact eye health and vision care.