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Laser Images to Help the Vision-Impaired

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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Gaylen Floy sees the world through a straw-sized tunnel.

Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease diagnosed when she was a college student, has gradually whittled down her field of vision for more than two decades.

She uses a cane to navigate familiar paths to the store and through downtown Seattle, but it can't catch every obstacle.

"If I'm deep in thought and I'm looking straight ahead, I might take a branch in the head," said Floy, 48. "It's embarrassing to say, but it happens."

At the University of Washington, a group of mechanical engineers has crafted a wearable device that might one day make avoiding such mishaps easier for Floy and others with vision impairments.

Funded by a $470,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the visual aid shoots brightly lit laser images directly onto the retina, alerting users when they're approaching something they could run into or trip over.

The upcoming hazards are captured by a video camera mounted on one side of a pair of dark-rimmed glasses.

A laptop computer toted in a backpack then directs the laser image, which is reflected off a mirrored screen attached to the other side of the glasses.

About 3.3 million Americans suffer from blindness or low vision, according to the National Eye Institute. That number is expected to increase to 5.5 million by 2020, largely because the population is aging.

Vision problems often force people out of their jobs and onto disability, limiting their incomes, said Karen Mehlhorn, a mobility specialist who teaches people with limited vision how to get around.

She said most of her clients at Community Services for the Blind prefer guide dogs and canes to the more high-tech, expensive vision aids now on the market.

"There's not a lot of feedback about how well they work because they're so expensive, bulky and cumbersome," said Mehlhorn.

At 10 pounds, the UW vision aid is still too heavy and awkward for regular use, but researchers say they're working on a more refined version.

"It's not a consumer product," said Eric Seibel, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "It's a couple steps away from that."

For now, the device, which was developed by graduate and undergraduate students at the UW's Human Interface Technology Laboratory under Seibel's supervision, spends most days strapped to a mannequin in the lab.

The engineering team is looking for more people with low vision to test it out, said Ryland Bryant, one of the project's lead researchers.

"If we get funding, within five or six years we could refine it enough to make a useful product," Bryant said.

Floy's vision loss began accelerating several years ago, forcing her to quit her job as a graphic artist for an Illinois newspaper. She moved to Federal Way to take advantage of the Puget Sound's larger sidewalks and disability friendly public transportation system.

Her peripheral vision is gone. She can recognize faces and read, but she can only see what's directly in front of her.

Adjusting to a carrying a cane has been humbling, said Floy. A friend got his stuck in an elevator door. And she has trouble juggling money, her purse and a cane when she's trying to pay for something.

She recently tried on a vision aid called the Jordy, which magnifies images inside a pair of goggles. She said it reminds her of the gear worn by a character on Star Trek.

"It kept sliding down my nose," said Floy.

She might use it in the classroom or when she's reading, but not to walk around and shop.

"When you try something like this you're concerned about how you look," Floy said.

Still, she's intrigued by the UW's new aid.

"It would be nice not to have to rely on the cane."

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