With the introduction of the Apple Watch and other smart watches from Google and Samsung, the buzz around "connected" eyeglasses such as Google Glass has subsided considerably. Work on these devices is still being done, however, and recently I had the opportunity to demo a pair of smart glasses that have been developed to assist the blind in orientation mobility, and other tasks where a bit of long-distance sighted guidance may be of help. Echo Sense Network Glasses allow individuals with visual impairments to stream both audio and video related to their environment via a cell data connection. This stream can be accessed online by a sighted guide, who can communicate in real time with the glasses wearer, offering descriptions, navigational guidance, and other useful information.
The Echo Sense Equipment
The Echo Sense unit I tested ran on an HTC One S Android phone using AT&T. Service is also available on T-Mobile.
The HTC One S was housed inside an oversized, Otterbox style case, with a belt clip on the back and an extra power pack to enable up to ten hours of video streaming. Talkback is disabled while the Echo Sense software is running, but most essential smartphone commands can be issued by pressing the physical Volume Down button, then speaking the appropriate command.
The Network Glasses are wrap-around style sunglasses. The version I tested was black with dark lenses, but other frame colors and lens opacities are available, and partially sighted users can order a pair with prescription lenses installed. A video camera and microphone are mounted above the nose bridge, but the housing is smooth and flat with no awkward protrusions.
There are two cable connections between the phone and the glasses. The first is the USB power/data connection, which attaches to the left arm of the glasses, fairly near the hinge. The second is an audio cable, which connects to a jack on the right arm and leads to a thin "ear tube." This is a thin wire that slips into your left or right ear and allows you to hear the person monitoring your session without blocking environmental sounds such as local conversations or passing traffic.
The glasses weigh 35 grams—heavier than standard glasses but not uncomfortably so. The cables running between glasses and phone felt a bit awkward, especially since there were two separate cables connected to opposite sides of the frames. Perhaps a future version could combine these into a single cable.
The Echo Sense video stream and two-way communication are facilitated by company servers that can only be accessed on computers running Google Chrome with the VLC video plugin.
Getting Started with Echo Sense
From the user's side, starting up an Echo Sense session could not be much simpler. With the software running, I inserted the USB cable and the phone responded by speaking, "Welcome to Echo Sense Network Glasses." I then connected the audio cable, put on the glasses, and placed the ear tube in my right ear. I pressed the Volume Down button, and was prompted audibly to speak a command. "Help," summons a list of Echo Sense commands. "Video" prompts the reading of a disclaimer message, after which the glasses' video begins streaming.
The unit's audio played surprisingly clearly through the ear tube, but at first we could not get the remote audio stream working correctly. Eventually we discovered this was because of my AT&T signal, which is very poor in my town.
Indeed, when I stepped outside onto my front porch the audio problems resolved and I could hear Echo Sense VP of Business Development Haden Etheridge, who was assisting me with this trial, clearly. It was time to take a walk. Before we head out, though, let's take a quick look at the other end of the session.
Monitoring an Echo Sense Session
As mentioned, the sighted monitor of an Echo Sense session uses Google Chrome with the VLC video plugin on a microphone-equipped PC or Android smartphone. The monitor logs on to the Echo Sense website to view the Navigation Screen and to communicate with the user. The Navigation Screen contains two panes, one showing the live stream and a second showing a Google Map view of the immediate area, which can resolve down all the way to Street View.
At any time, the monitor can click on a map position, obtain the GPS coordinates and send them to the phone. This will begin a turn-by-turn navigation session with audible announcements. The user can also call up a GPS session with the "Navigate" voice command, and request directions to a particular address, or to a location such as "the nearest Starbucks."
Other useful Echo Sense commands include the following:
- Introduction: offers a welcome message to the Echo Sense.
- Controls: describes the phone's physical controls and buttons.
- Connections: describes the physical connections between the phone and glasses.
- Charging: describes how to charge the unit and warns not to leave glasses connected during charging.
- Video: begins video streaming.
- Exit: ends video streaming.
- Receive Calls: with this option enabled, you can answer incoming calls by pressing the Volume Down button.
- Call: allows voice dialing to one of your contacts.
- End: ends your current call.
- Text: enables you to compose and send a text message.
- Check Text: reads your last text.
- E-mail: enables you to compose and send an e-mail.
- Check E-mail: reads new e-mails.
- Brightness: changes the phone's brightness.
- Contrast: changes the phone's contrast levels.
- Battery: reports battery status.
Navigating with Echo Sense
I live a few blocks from a combination fast food restaurant/gas station/convenience store, and I decided this would make an excellent destination for my Echo Sense test walk. So with the video and audio stream both up and running, I grabbed my cane and headed off.
I could hear Etheridge speaking clearly in my right ear as I walked along the sidewalk, and he could not only see ahead of me, but also a wide swath of my periphery. "White car passing to your left," he announced at one point as the vehicle had barely passed me. However this was where the poor quality of my network connection began to affect the link. The link grew a bit sluggish, and as I walked Etheridge began announcing objects such as bushes and cross street curbs as upcoming when I had just passed them.
I paused my walk and asked Etheridge to report when he saw me raise my hand in front of the glasses. A full five-count passed between the time I raised my hand and the time I heard his "now" reply. A one-second lag had turned into a five-second lag. I do not think this problem would have been nearly so pronounced had we been using a Verizon phone, since their LTE coverage in my area is excellent. Even so, this was only a minor problem since if the area had been unfamiliar, I could always have stopped for directions such as "Your way is clear to the corner, but a car is parked in the crosswalk."
Usually when I go for a burger I take a detour and approach the building from the rear. Otherwise I have to cross a wide parking lot, gas pumps, and a picnic area. Wearing the Echo Sense I decided to take the direct route. Etheridge was able to guide me perfectly with clock headings, avoiding both parked cars and the gas pumps. I was even able to shorten my trip somewhat by cutting across a path of grass.
At this point the network lag was only about two seconds. Etheridge directed me through the store—"There's a potato chip rack on your right, a man in a blue shirt about to pass you on the left"—and directly to the restaurant counter. The counter was a bit too far away from the menu board for Etheridge to read remotely, but the glass did provide sufficient resolution for him to take a snapshot of a print menu and read it. And after I made my purchase I held up the change and Etheridge verified it was correct.
Granted, I could have accomplished all of these same tasks using my iPhone with FaceTime, or an Android phone running a Skype video call. But that would have required both hands, one for the phone and the other for my cane. I do use FaceTime occasionally if I need help identifying a package of meat from the freezer or something else, but my wife reports this can be quite frustrating because I either am pointing the phone off to one side of the item or moving it so fast, it can make her dizzy. With the camera in the glasses, I suspect this sort of task would be much easier with the Echo Sense.
A User's Story
Since my Echo Sense experience was limited to a single session, I spoke with South Florida web entrepreneur Michael Arbitman, who has been using an Echo Sense system for nearly a year. Michael uses Echo Sense to help ensure he's taking the correct medications. "My mail-order pharmacy won't put them in different bottles, and after a lifetime of finger pricks my fingers aren't sensitive enough to read braille." Michael also uses his Echo Sense glasses to direct him to nearby restaurants and read the menus, and last December he was able to use the glasses to shop alone at a mall with the remote help of his wife and friends, who all use Android phones to offer assistance. "I tell the Echo Sense phone to call my wife, my best friend, or another family member and it takes less than 20 seconds to start the link," he reports.
The Echo Sense package costs $2,995, including the glasses, phone, battery pack, and case. This price includes two years of Echo Sense service—phone charges are separate. After that service is $30 per month. T-Mobile discounts this price to $25, which can be tacked onto your monthly bill.
I asked Etheridge if the company had considered organizing a network of volunteers who might be available for monitoring sessions, since not everyone is going to have a friend or family member available on demand. He replied that they are hoping to include a call desk for brief monitoring session work as part of the plan sometime in the future, but I suspect there is a Catch-22 here: until there are enough users, the company will likely not be able to afford the extra personnel, but without the extra personnel they are going to have a much harder time building the customer base enough to afford the increased staffing.
I enjoyed my Echo Sense experience, but for myself it wouldn't be practical to find someone to monitor my travel before I go to the doctor, or to the burger joint for a shake. I do envision other cases, like those below, where Echo Sense would be a valuable tool
- A blind individual whose job involves a lot of travel to unfamiliar locations would have a much easier time locating office doors, convention booths, and hotel elevators and room numbers if someone back at the home office could offer a few minutes of visual guidance.
- A newly blind senior living alone could become more independent if a family member could log in and help him read his mail or carry the trash to the curb remotely instead of physically traveling to his home. Children and other out-of-town family members could also more easily participate in the process.
- New students usually receive mobility and orientation training at their new schools, but large university campuses can be intimidating, with travel paths that are not always logically laid out. The availability of remote guidance could go a long way to lower a student's already high stress level, especially since it is only after the semester begins that the student truly learns all of the places where he or she will wish to travel.
- Mobility instructors could potentially become one of the major users of Echo Sense. After training an individual in cane or dog use, how much more confidently could the client transition to independent travel if he or she could borrow a pair of Echo Sense glasses for a few weeks? Perhaps the company should consider an agency discount. Who knows how many temporary users would then wish to become Echo Sense customers?