People with very poor vision may benefit from using a device that recognizes faces, money and text, a small study suggests.
The OrCam artificial vision device uses a camera attached to any pair of glasses to recognize objects and then communicate that to the wearer through an earpiece, according to a report in JAMA Opthalmology.
"If patients have advanced (eye) disease which is beyond medical and surgical therapy and they have lost their ability to read, I think the OrCam is at least one instrument they may wish to use to be more independent," said senior researcher Dr. Mark Mannis, of the University of California Davis Eye Center in Sacramento.
About 2 percent of people in the U.S. have low vision, which is usually caused by eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). The condition may also be caused by injuries and birth defects.
The OrCam device is "really a remarkable innovation," Mannis told Reuters Health.
For example, he said, a person can "look" at a person entering a room, and the OrCam device will tell the wearer who it is. It can also read the text on a page, or tell people the value of paper money.
For the study, Mannis and his colleague Dr. Elad Moisseiev recruited 12 legally blind people between July and September 2015. The average age was 62.
Participants completed a 10-item functionality test, which included - among other daily life activities - reading an email on an electronic screen, recognizing money, reading a newspaper, recognizing different brands and reading distant signs.
They completed the functionality test once without vision aids, once with any vision aids they had available and then with the OrCam. Each participant received a 90- to 120-minute training session on the OrCam.
The average functionality score without vision aids was 2.5 out of a possible 10. That score jumped to 9.5 once the participants put on the OrCam devices.
After a week of using the OrCam devices, the participants returned to the lab to complete the functionality test again. Their score increased to an average of 9.8.
"Pretty much across the board there was tremendous improvement in their ability to perform," said Mannis.
At the end of the study, the devices were returned to OrCam's manufacturer, which did not fund the research. But Mannis said several of the participants have acquired the device and are using it daily. The device costs between $2,500 to $3,500.
Mannis said there are other types of character converters, but they weren't able to test those devices. The OrCam, however, is innocuous and inconspicuous compared to other bulky devices, he said.
"It provides a patient with severe disability with an incredible amount of independence," he said.