The OrCam: A Portable, Wearable Visual System for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons

The OrCam in place on eyeglasses

OrCam is an Israeli start-up company, founded in 2010 by Amnon Shashua, Sachs Professor of Computer Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The mission of OrCam is to develop a “portable, wearable visual system with ‘human-like’ capabilities” for blind and visually impaired persons, via the use of artificial computer intelligence and augmented reality.

The OrCam (pictured at left) is based on computer algorithms that Professor Shashua has pioneered with Shai Shalev-Shwartz, a Hebrew University colleague, and Yonatan Wexler, their former graduate student, who is OrCam’s head of Research and Development. OrCam also has assembled a team of experienced engineers, most of whom are from elite technological units of the Israel Defense Forces and academia.

About the OrCam

Here is more information from The New York Times, in an article by senior science writer John Markoff entitled Device from Israeli Start-Up Gives the Visually Impaired a Way to Read:

The OrCam device is a small camera worn in the style of Google Glass, connected by a thin cable to a portable computer designed to fit in the wearer’s pocket. The system clips on to the wearer’s glasses with a small magnet and uses a bone-conduction speaker to offer clear speech as it reads aloud the words or object pointed to by the user.

The system is designed to both recognize and speak “text in the wild,” a term used to describe newspaper articles as well as bus numbers, and objects as diverse as landmarks, traffic lights, and the faces of friends.

The device is quite different from other technology that has been developed to give some vision to people who are blind, like the artificial retina system called Argus II, made by Second Sight Medical Products. That system, which was approved [for humanitarian use] by the Food and Drug Administration in February, allows visual signals to bypass a damaged retina and be transmitted to the brain.

The OrCam device is also drastically different from Google Glass, which also offers the wearer a camera but is designed for people with [unimpaired] vision and has limited visual recognition and local computing power.

Although the system is usable by [persons who are] blind, OrCam is initially planning to sell the device to people in the United States who are visually impaired [or have low vision].

More OrCam Information and a Q&A

The OrCam system is designed with a simplified user interface. To recognize an object or text, the wearer points at it and the device then interprets the object or scene. The audio information is transmitted to a bone conduction speaker, similar to the Google Glass headset.

The OrCam has a set of objects pre-stored in its system, but it also allows users to add new items by shaking the device (to add an item) or waving a hand (to add a face or place). The OrCam will then instruct the user, in real time, how to store the item in its memory/library. This function allows the user to store items such as credit cards, as well as the faces of family and friends.

The OrCam website also provides a Question & Answer page for prospective users:

  • How long will it take me to learn how to use OrCam? OrCam is designed to be intuitive. Operating is done by pointing. It takes just a few minutes to learn how to use it properly.
  • Can I use OrCam with my own glasses? We understand that eyeglasses are important and unique; they are a part of your look and not just a visual aid. Hence, OrCam was designed to be mounted on your existing eyeglass frames. Almost all types are appropriate, including sunglasses.
  • Can I receive subsidization from insurance companies or the government? We are currently not supported. However, we are working on it.
  • Can I use OrCam if I’m hard of hearing? OrCam uses sound to convey information, so persons who are deaf cannot use it. However, it works well with hearing aids. The earpiece is on the right side, but you can connect your own headphones if you can only hear out of the left ear or require special aids.
  • Will OrCam block my hearing? OrCam uses bone conduction technology, so the earpiece is placed against the cheek and doesn’t interfere with regular hearing. Moreover, if there is strong ambient noise, you can cover your ears and still hear the device well.
  • What languages does OrCam support? OrCam currently works only in English. We will add more languages over time.
  • Does OrCam work in the dark? OrCam sees much like the human eye, so it currently works well only in lighted environments. Daylight or artificial lighting are more than sufficient. If you are in a dark place, you can use a flashlight.

OrCam Availability

At present, the OrCam is sold only through the OrCam website, where you can also view videos of the OrCam in action. The price is $2,500. OrCam will begin shipping 100 units in the fall of 2013, and further production will unfold in late 2013 and early 2014. You can read about additional OrCam projects in development at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence website.