Gary Foster was in his 50s when his eyesight started to fail. The native Canadian eventually lost all central vision in both his eyes a few years ago as a result of age-related macular degeneration. Place a peanut on a table, and Foster won't be able to see it; if he turns slightly and uses his peripheral vision, he might catch a glimpse of it. He can't see people's faces or read text on a page. After he lost his central vision, he lost his license. After he lost his license, he lost his job, since it required him to drive.
"There is no cure. All I ever heard from the doctor is, 'Sorry, there is nothing we can do for you,'" said Foster, now 63.
But several years ago Foster happened upon a piece of technology at a public exhibition in Calgary. It was a pair of glasses called eSight, and when he put them on, he realized that his vision drastically improved, so much so that he could see faces and read books. "When I first put it on, I was able to read to the bottom of the eye chart," Foster said.
Foster is not the only visually impaired person turning to new technologies to either improve vision or assist with everyday tasks. A growing cohort of companies, like eSight, offer visual tools that can enhance vision — making things bigger, brighter and bolder so that they're able to be visible to people like Foster. Other companies, like San Diego-based Aira, connect people to real-time support services that — thanks to devices such as Google Glass — can see what the blind can't and navigate users interacting with, for example, a vending machine by talking to them over the phone.
Founded in 2006 by Conrad Lewis, a computer engineer with two legally blind sisters, Toronto-based eSight developed its own pair of proprietary glasses, backed by a decade of in-house research. The company keeps many specifics under wraps. According to communications director Jeffrey Fenton, eSight is "backed by tens of millions of dollars," and there are "thousands of stories that showcase" people using eSight.
The company released its latest pair of glasses, eSight3, last February. The glasses, which look like a visorlike headset, are rechargeable and good for eight hours on a single charge. Each houses a high-speed, high-definition camera that captures what the user is looking at. The device uses algorithms to enhance the video feed and displays the video through eSight's OLED screens in front of the user's eyes. Almost immediately, the cameras enhance the footage that beams across two screens, one in front of each eye. A 24-times zoom also helps out.