New Wearable Reduces Risk of Collision For Visually Impaired

Julia Little  |  May 1, 2015

Americans of all ages are impacted by vision loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 14 million citizens experiencing debilitating visual impairment, 1.6 million are over the age of 50. There's a serious need for enhanced therapeutic and rehabilitation treatment methods to assist these patients in performing daily activities.

Conditions like cataract, macular degeneration and glaucoma are common causes of vision impairment, especially in older adults. Mobility becomes a major issue for these patients, making it difficult for them to live a healthy lifestyle without full-time assistance. 

Mobility proves major issue for visually impaired
Although there are no current reports on how many people use canes and walking sticks to prevent accidents, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Center for Health Statistics found that in 1990, approximately 109,000 people with vision loss in the U.S. used long canes to get around. The National Federation of the Blind also noted statistics from Guiding Eyes for the Blind stating that 10,000 guide dog teams were working with the visually impaired to prevent accidents and collisions in 2014. 

The Falls Prevention Center of Excellence explained that those with visual impairments have more than double the chance of falling than people with normal vision. For older adults, this risk is even greater, as seniors often simultaneously experience a number of additional age-related factors, such as hearing loss and arthritis. These patients need reliable devices and treatments to assist them with their mobility issues.

New wearable device improves mobility
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary has recently developed a wearable device to help people with peripheral vision loss. The device was designed to warn patients when they come too close to an object to prevent them from colliding with it. 

The device is unique, as it sends auditory warnings to the user when he or she is approaching an object instead of when he or she passes by or stands close to it. It's also small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, which makes it one of the most convenient wearables available for those with vision loss.

After creating the innovative technology, researchers from the infirmary tested it on 11 patients with visual impairments, including eight with tunnel vision and three with hemianopia. Tunnel vision causes people's wide-angle vision to deteriorate, while hemianopia is when there are impairments in the right or left side of both eyes. Both of these conditions are frequently the result of stroke or brain injury. 

The researchers set up a course that consisted of 46 obstacles to replicate an environment that many blind individuals would encounter on a daily basis. Obstacles were placed at various heights and included challenges like navigating around pedestrians. Each patient walked though the course twice, once with the assistance of the device and once without it. The number of collisions and the walking speeds were compared for each subject when the device was used and when it wasn't. The results, published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, showed that although the wearable didn't have a significant impact on the participants' walking speeds, the number of collisions decreased by an average of 47 percent.

"We are excited about the device's potential value for helping visually impaired and completely blind people walk around safely. Our next job is to test its usefulness in patients' daily lives in a clinical trial study," said the senior author Dr. Gang Luo, associate scientist at Mass. Eye and Ear.

If the clinical trials prove successful, the device may become a popular tool to assist patients with various types of vision loss.

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