Smart glasses resurgence - technical and practical barriers

Assistive technology news, policy and events. 

Clive, smiling at the cameraDispATches is written by Clive Gilbert, freelance research consultant and specialist writer in public policy, social affairs and technology. 

Born with cerebral palsy, Clive is an extensive user of assistive technology and has first-hand experience of the transformative potential that technology can bring to the lives of disabled people. 

This month's dispATches newsletter is sponsored by TextHelp. 


Hello from Clive: Smart glasses open new possibilities for assistive technology

Smart glasses have reappeared on the technological map. Over the past year, Google, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) Apple and Microsoft have all shown renewed interest in developing the next generation of digitally enabled spectacles. 

The technology's first commercial outing was the ill-fated Google Glass launched in 2013. The project imploded two years later under the combined weight of an eye-watering price tag, privacy concerns caused by its onboard camera, questionable aesthetics, a short battery life and a lack of purpose. 

Smart glasses reframed

The latest models benefit from a growing range of apps offering things like music, the ability to view photos and casual gaming as well as an expanding cast of big brand names such as Netflix, Zoom and Amazon Alexa. For example, Amazon’s Echo Frames can be used to control smart home devices, receive notifications, make phone calls and stream music using the tech giant’s voice assistant and speakers that don’t leak sound to the outside world.  Depending on the model and brand, prices now range from the low £100s to several thousand pounds.   
Glasses next to smart watch
Even though smart glasses are still in their infancy, their potential benefits for disabled people have not escaped notice.  Indeed, the range of possible assistive technology applications could be vast.  

Technologists are experimenting with harnessing the information collected from sensors built into smart glasses to help people with physical disabilities to type into a computer.  Researchers working with people with Parkinson’s disease have been exploring new ways of providing prompts to, for example, help wearers correct their stance to reduce the risk of falling over and aid communication in public by encouraging them to speak louder.  

Smart glasses also offer strategies such as magnification, contrast enhancement and optical character recognition to help visually impaired people in their daily routines.  

These early forays into the assistive technology usage of smart glasses are already showing promising signs of improving people’s lives.  Studies of augmented reality glasses involving autistic people suggest that some users find apps can help make social interactions easier.  Smart glasses have also been successfully used to help people with cognitive impairments prepare food through augmented reality games designed to foster new skills.  

Improving the optics

However, many of the benefits of smart glasses are still largely speculative.  This is partly because the technology has a long way to go before it reaches maturity.  One of the conclusions being drawn from the work conducted so far is that simply adapting existing interfaces such as standard onscreen keyboards to the realm of augmented reality may be missing an opportunity to develop entirely new ways of interacting with digital devices.  

Some of the assumed advantages don’t appear to stack up. Researchers have found that while smart glasses may help visually impaired people with tasks such as recognising faces and reading texts on buildings and moving vehicles, audio rather than visual feedback may be preferred by many users.  

It is likely to be some years before smart glasses become mainstream consumer products.  Manufacturers have yet to fix shortfalls such as limited battery lives and answer critical questions around potential privacy breaches for both wearers and the public in relation to the use of cameras and GPS technology.  Also, strikingly few brands have worked out how their smart glasses can be used alongside normal opticians’ prescriptions.
Until these problems are resolved, most assistive technology applications for smart glasses will remain confined to university labs.  

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Further resources 

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