Looking to the future

Graham Clements
Glasses are being tested around the world that have an inbuilt computer. They may have a microphone, camera, small screen, battery and speakers. Some of these glasses can take photos, give directions, make phone calls and connect to the internet. This exciting technology can help people with a disability. The glasses may help people with a hearing impairment to read live transcripts of what people are saying. A person with a vision impairment may be able to use the glasses to read newspapers. Many companies and researchers are developing and testing these new glasses.
Posted by: 
Graham Clements on 13/12/2013
The Google Glass Explorer. There are no lenses. A small computer display is on the top right corner of the frame.
The Google Glass Explorer. There are no lenses. A small computer display is on the top right corner of the frame.

The Google Glass Explorer.


There is a lot of chatter on the web about Google Glass. Google Glass appears to be the front-runner in a race to produce glasses with inbuilt computer displays. Thousands of people are currently testing a Google Glass prototype called Explorer. Some of these testers are people with a disability. They are using the glasses to take photos, get directions, make phone calls and connect to the web.

Samsung has patented glasses similar to the Explorer. Designer sunglasses company Oakley are also working on their version of computerised glasses. And then there are a number of researchers working on glasses too.

What are these glasses?

Built into the slim frame of the Google Glass Explorer is:

  •  a computer
  • a small screen to display images and text
  • speakers
  • a microphone
  •  a camera
  • a rechargeable battery
  • wireless technology for connection to the web and smart phones.

The patent for the Samsung glasses does not include wireless technology, so they will need to have a cable connection to a smartphone.

Other researchers are working on glasses with limited functions like the EyeTalker sunglasses. These sunglasses are specifically designed for people with a vision impairment. They use an inbuilt camera to read books, newspapers and written information on product packaging. The text is then converted to speech that the wearer hears through the glasses’ speakers.

Disability uses of glasses

American Alex Blaszczuk is a paraplegic. She is one of the testers of Google’s Explorer glasses. In a video she tells how the glasses have helped her become more independent. While travelling in her wheelchair she can ask the glasses to display directions. Instead of searching for her mobile, she can instantly take a picture of whatever she is looking at by saying “take a picture”. She can then connect to the web and instantly share that picture with her friends.   

The inbuilt calendar software can remind people of appointments and when to take medication. Such reminders would greatly benefit people with poor memories, like those with brain injuries.

Apps for disabilities 

Some of the potential apps for the glasses are very exciting. People with hearing impairments should be able to use voice-recognition software to display real-time transcriptions of what someone is saying on the glasses’ screen.

Current mobile apps can tell a person with a vision impairment what denomination of money they are holding. Google glass will be able to do this without the need to use a mobile phone. Apps are under development that tell a wearer of the glasses, in real-time, what they are looking at or holding.   

A number of organisations are working on technology that read facial emotions. People with a vision impairment or a person who has Autism Spectrum Disorder could soon use an app to tell them what emotion someone is displaying. The glasses might then suggest to the wearer how to respond to that emotion.

American engineer Steve McHugh is crowdsourcing funds to build an app that uses eye movements to control a wheelchair. He plans to use technology that is built into Google Glass to track eye movements. If the wearer looks at a stop icon displayed on the glasses’ screen their wheelchair stops. If they look at a green icon the wheelchair increases speed.

Potential problems

Some people might worry that wearing the glasses will block their view and they will end up walking into a post. After all, people already do that while fiddling with their mobiles. But the Explorer’s screen only occupies a small corner in front of the right eye, and the screen goes to sleep when the glasses are not in use. So they could be less distracting than mobiles.

The Explorer version of Google Glass is not currently accessible for people who use bulky hearing aids as they get in the way of its frame. And people who have speech difficulties might not be able to give verbal instructions to the glasses. But these problems might be overcome in future versions.  

The glasses will probably have to be removed when entering places where cameras are not allowed, like cinemas and change rooms.

People might be weary of someone wearing the glasses due to concerns about being filmed. Conversely, people might be more courteous to people with disabilities if they think they are being filmed. But this concern might be ill-placed as the Explorer glasses glow when in use, so it should be easy to tell if they are filming.

Vanity might be a problem for some people as the glasses have a thicker frame on one side, so they can make the wearer’s face look lopsided.  

How much will the glasses cost?

The Explorer version of Google Glass costs $1500. But most pundits expect the mass-marketed version to be a lot cheaper, perhaps around $300. Early adopters will probably be charged a premium. A compatible smartphone will most probably be required to use all the glasses’ apps.

Other glasses with more limited functions might be cheaper or even free. The researchers creating the EyeTalker sunglasses hope to sell them for $200. They also hope to partner with charities in the United States to provide the glasses for free. Hopefully they will partner with charities in Australia too.

When will they be available?

Google appears likely to be the first to release mass-marketed glasses. But they have not said when their glasses will be available. Many technology websites and publications are predicting Google Glass will be available in 2014. Until the glasses are released, we will have to be content with thinking up ways they can assist people with disabilities.








Comment on this article