Here, at Eye on the Cure, we’ve recently written quite a bit about retinal prosthetic devices, or “bionic retinas,” whether FDA-approved or works-in-progress. But there’s another new device for the visually impaired, a form of assistive technology, that’s neither disease-specific nor requires an implant. And it’s already on the market, at a relatively low price. It’s called OrCam.
The subject of posts at Bloomberg.com and the New York Times, OrCam is the brainchild of Amnon Shashua, a computer-science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who founded an Israel-based company three years ago to bring his technology to fruition. And impressive, it is. The device is comprised of a mini camera and bone-conduction earpiece, which are strapped to the user’s eyeglasses. With help from a smartphone-sized computer, it recognizes and identifies objects, signage and writing.
An excellent video, on OrCam’s website, demonstrates its many daily uses:
In early June, when the device first went on sale, for $2,500, “we had our first 100 sell within 48 hours,” recounts Erez Na’aman, vice president of engineering and business development at OrCam. So the company manufactured another 500, “but they’re going very quickly,” he says. Plans to ramp up production are underway, so that supply will expand in 2014.
I chatted on the phone with Erez last week, when he was kind enough to answer several questions about the device:
So there are some objects pre-programmed into OrCam, whereas others are not?
It recognizes some objects automatically, like buses and traffic lights, as well as hundreds of specific objects, like soda cans or cereal boxes. But many objects are different from user to user, such as your credit card. So the user can teach it to recognize, for instance, places you regularly visit, like a grocery store, as well as faces and personal objects. If it’s one of these things, you wave your hand in front of it, then say what the object is, and it will recognize it in the future.
For reading signs and newspapers, or seeing a traffic light, how far away can you be?
The distance OrCam can see depends on size. Large text, on a billboard sign, can be seen from dozens of meters away. And with a place, like a store or restaurant, it’s easier, because it’s an entire picture. If you’re reading a newspaper, it can see from 30 to 40 centimeters away.
How does OrCam differ from other devices?
Until now, those devices could perform specific tasks, like reading from a flat document or magnifying things. Now, for the first time, we have technology people can use in their daily lives—for grocery shopping, crossing a street, reading books and newspapers. And we’ve added things no other device can do—reading from afar, for instance, or recognizing traffic lights.
We wrapped all these together in a very small, intuitive device, which doesn’t depend on the internet or wifi. Everything is on board; it’s self-contained. And it answers, after you point, within a fraction of a second. There is a battery, yes. But you can recharge each night, while you sleep.
It seems to enable people to perform tasks they haven’t been able to in years.
When people ask us what we do, we say, “We can’t give you back your vision, but we do give you back the functionality that was lost.” We’re making things easy again.
That’s why it’s mainly for the visually impaired. You don’t want advice; a lot of it is having it do what you want it to do. Otherwise, it would just talk all the time and annoy you. OrCam lets you decide what you want, when you want it. That’s the same for people who are sighted—you want to know what something is, you look at it. It’s a very simple, intuitive concept.
Where does the name “OrCam” come from, and did you anticipate this kind of reaction so soon?
“Cam” comes from camera, and “or” is “light” in Hebrew. So, “camera light” or “light camera.”
We expected it to be well-received, but we didn’t anticipate how much. Over 1,000 people contacted us within a few weeks, plus hundreds of distributors and media from all over the world. We actually had to change to stronger servers for the website because so many people were finding us online.
We obviously hit a very warm spot in many people’s hearts and addressed a problem that many people need addressed.