I self-identify as a person who is visually impaired or has low vision. Born with an inherited retinal disease, X-Recessive Blue Cone Monochromacy, my vision has been correctable to only about 20/100 since the second grade. At the risk of oversimplifying, my vision is roughly 20% of normal. There is good news though. Based on extensive family history, my sight likely will not deteriorate much at all with age. If you want to learn more, just ping me on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, or read what I have written previously for Medium.
Enter Toronto-based eSight, a technology company making augmented or enhanced reality glasses to greatly improve the eyesight of many people who are visually impaired or legally blind. You can find my 2018 article about their eSight 3 eyewear on LinkedIn Pulse. Recently, they released their much improved eSight 4, and I have a set to try! So, let’s get into it.
While wearing eSight 4, reading the standard eye test is no longer a challenge. Simply, my eyesight improves from 20/100 to 20/20 using eSight 4 to view a standard eye chart. That’s remarkable for a person who never saw a presentation in a board room, the materials in a lecture hall or the chalk board, ah.. white board, in a class room. While there is no guarantee eSight 4 will work for everyone, this technology makes a remarkable difference for me.
Great First Impression
Particularly for people with a vision impairment, details are critical. Packaging, poke-yoke design, etc. are really important.
When a $6,000 (USD) piece of technology arrives at your front door, it should be well-packed, and eSight 4 meets expectations. Like a Matryoshka doll, inside the carrying case inside the colorful retail box inside the shipping box is a pair of the new eSight Version 4. Immediately apparent is the absence of wires, which were such an encumbrance with eSight 3. Wireless capability is one of many significant improvements.
A challenge with eSight 3 is the difficulty for some users to see if the unit is fully charged. This will be a different experience for everyone who is visually impaired, but it is easy for me to see that the eSight 4 batteries are fully charged. Another nice detail is the batteries were fully charged right out of the box. It may be a small thing, but it’s an important detail when you want to get started. That literally saved several hours.
eSight 4 can be controlled with a remote that is similar to a TV remote. One of the outstanding user-centric details is you just cannot drop the battery cover. Note in the photo of the remote control battery compartment on the left that the lanyard is threaded through the compartment cover. That’s a really cool detail, especially for people who are visually impaired. You can’t drop the cover, because it is tethered to the remote itself.
eSight 4 can also be controlled with an app on your smartphone and controls on the right temple of the glasses themselves. Each of these options works differently, so you may find that one of the options or a combination works best for you.
Another important detail is that you cannot put the battery into the eSight 4 glasses themselves incorrectly. To the left is a photo of the battery receptacle on the back of the glasses (bottom left) and the battery (top right). You can see two sets of contacts in the receptacle to accommodate inserting the battery in either orientation. So, there’s no need to figure out the polarity. Just plug and go! Again, that’s great recognition of the needs of their users who often cannot see the orientation of the battery.
This foolproof design is really helpful when you’re on the go. Assuming your hair isn’t in the way, you can swap out the batteries without even taking time to take off eSight 4!
A Compliment to My Arsenal of EyeGlasses
Another major improvement is that eSight 4 can be worn over my regular prescription glasses. That’s a huge improvement over eSight 3 that require a dedicated pair of prescription glasses — at least two in my case, one clear and one tinted — that would snap into the unit. Like so many people who are low vision, I have a collection of clear glasses for various applications including single-vision for distance, tri-focals, and computer glasses — and three colors of Maui Jim sunglasses for different situations. So if the wearer doesn’t need enhanced vision for a moment, you just swing eSight 4 up. This also represents a significant cost savings for me of $800.
One of the aspects of my low vision condition is light sensitivity. Sunglasses help enormously, even indoors and while watching television. The ability to wear eSight 4 over my prescription sunglasses is a tremendous feature and will benefit others whose vision experience includes photosensitivity.
Goin’ Mobile, Mobile, Mobile, Yeah!
What may not seem apparent is how important the ability to wear eSight 4 over your prescription glasses is for mobility. When seated, of course, it’s great to be able to swing eSight 4 up to use my regular glasses. What’s more important is how easy it is to walk with eSight 4 down and in place while using the periphery of my regular glasses to navigate. One of my favorite applications is hiking with my regular sunglasses with eSight 4 in the up-and-out-of-the-way position. When I want to zoom in on something to see it better, I’ll stop, swing the eSight 4’s down and zoom in on what I want to see.
While certainly not an application for everyone, riding in the car—not driving, of course — is far and away my favorite eSight 4 application. It really is remarkable how much detail passes by that is indistinguishable without magnification.
Experimenting with magnification is essential to find the right balance between detail and image stability. For me, 3X magnification works best in the car. Some people who are susceptible to motion sickness may not be able to try this application at all. That said, it’s best to view through the front windshield, because magnified images pass by too quickly to recognize them through the side windows.
The eSight 4 image is inherently more stable than its predecessor, because eSight 4 fits so much more securely on the wearer’s head than eSight 3. Unfortunately, just like using a long lens in photography, it’s nearly impossible to keep my body still enough at long focal lengths (i.e., high magnifications). So if I could have one eSight 4 improvement, it would be image stabilization much like what is available in modern digital SLR cameras. In photography, image stabilization works great in some situations and less well in others. So the ideal eSight 4 implementation would follow the lead of a good photo-quality lens and be able to toggle image stabilization on or off.
Wireless or Not, Here We Go!
By far, the most noticeable improvement is that eSight 4 is wireless! It’s amazing how clean the design is compared to the eSight 3, which is an incredible tool in its own right. eSight 3 has a power cord between the controller and the glasses and an HDMi cable from the controller to the device you want to port to the glasses (e.g., between your computer and the controller). eSight 4 eliminates the power cord and makes the HDMi cable optional.
One of my mentors stressed that if you plan a huge change to a product that impacts how people use it, make the old way an option if you possibly can. That’s exactly what the developers of eSight 4 have done. More than an accommodation for people who don‘t like change, it is recognition that some applications actually work better with a cable. In fact, there are sometimes advantages to using a cable over a wireless connection.
A Theater Experience
One of my favorite experiences is watching video with eSight 4. With AirPods Pro synced with an iPhone XR (iOS 14.2), and the iPhone XR connected to the eSight 4 via HDMi cable, running the Disney+ app (Version 22.214.171.124845) to watch the Mandalorian works perfectly. The video quality is outstanding, and the sound quality is as well. eSight messages (e.g., if the user changes magnification) are delivered from the eSight 4 speaker near your right ear, and that is just fine with the AirPods Pro set to pass through ambient sound. So with the highly regarded Disney+ app, the system works perfectly. Popcorn not included.
A feature of eSight 4 that is just fantastic is that the user can pan left or right, up or down, simply by moving your head to look in the desired direction. It’s as intuitive as turning your head to follow a moving object.
Then there was the experience with the not-so-highly-regarded CBS app Version 7.4.15 (3148), Player Version 9.0.0. With the setup above, neither the audio nor video would work when I tried to watch the most recent episode of Star Trek Discovery (yes, I am ambidextrous). When I put away the AirPods Pro and used the eSight’s audio, the setup worked but the CBS app’s buffering capabilities (or lack thereof) prevented a good test. What I finally did was disconnect the HDMi cable and watch the episode through the eSight 4 viewer (as glasses) with audio coming from my AirPods Pro. That was just fine. The video quality wasn’t quite as good as the eSight 4 HDMi experience, but it was far better than my unaided eyes.
Many people who are struggling with the CBS app’s buffering in general recommend watching CBS programming via Amazon Prime Video. So for Amazon Prime users, I was able to verify we can watch CBS content — like Star Trek Discovery — via the Prime Video for iPhone app (Version 8.193.6224.3). The HDMi connection and AirPods Pro worked flawlessly.
A Process of Adjustment
It was apparent early on that you just cannot put on a pair of eSight 4 and go 24/7. Two things seem to be happening.
First, eSight is providing quite a bit more information about my surroundings than I have ever been able to see. There is quite a lot to process. Initially, fatigue would set in after about an hour of using the eSight 4. Gradually, I have been able to increase usage over time to about four hours. Accordingly, I only wear my eSight 4 when necessary. If it’s possible to be fully effective without, then I give my eyes and my eSight 4 a break.
Second, while the battery in back counterbalances the lenses and computer in front. it does take some time to learn how to wear the eSight 4’s weight and hat or ring comfortably. It’s simply a different feeling than a ball cap or one of my Stetsons. After a few weeks, it was easy to forget I am wearing eSight 4.
A setting that requires careful attention is adjusting eSight 4 to match your pupil-to-pupil distance. The process is to move the left eye-piece until the image of the cross shown at the left is clear. Then the process is repeated with your right eye. Finally, you fine tune with both eyes open. Before taking time to get this exactly right, my eyes felt as though they were crossing. So take time to get this right.
Something that would help improve this adjustment is a black-and-white color combination for the focus pattern. The yellow over grey does not work well for my vision condition. In fact, the yellow is so bright that it is difficult for me to see the edges crisply. It’s a lot like looking at the headlight of an oncoming car at night. A white cross on a black background would be best for my condition, but even black on white would be a significant improvement.
Ask for Help!
eSight 4 could very well be life-changing technology, but the cost is not insignificant. So my strong recommendation is to take advantage of the low-cost at-home trial, which comes with the help of an expert coach. Having gotten to know many of them during the isolation of this pandemic, the eSight coaches are great. They’re excellent communicators, tech savvy and have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Perhaps even more importantly, many of them are people who are visually impaired, so they’re working as hard to see the world as you are. They will help you squeeze every last drop of potential out of your eSight 4.
Just the Beginning
As much as I have learned about eSight 4, this still feels like the steep part of learning curve. There is so much to explore. My goal is to share experiences that might help you or someone you know, not to recreate the eSight 4 quick start, user guide or reference guide. There is also quite a lot of information available about eSight 4 from the manufacturer.
As I learn more from my experience, however, the plan is to share more. The goal is to publish an update in January as the journey continues.
Ken Gray is Director Emeritus of the Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, retired Director of Caterpillar Inc.’s Building Construction Products, Excavation, and Analytics & Innovation Divisions. Ken holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Bradley University and has completed executive development programs at Bradley University, the Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland and Stanford University.