In the March 2016 issue of AccessWorld, I had the privilege of writing about several new products introduced at ATIA 2016. One product that particularly caught my interest was OrCam MyEye, a device that coupled a camera and standard eyeglasses to allow a blind person to recognize faces and read text, among other things. I was taken with the potential afforded by this piece of technology, and dreamed of being able to recognize faces of people around me simply by looking in their direction. In that article, I mused about how well this product would really work. In the February 2017 issue of AccessWorld, contributing author Bill Holton briefly took OrCam through its paces, and came away from that experience fairly impressed. He too had some concerns about the future of the product, but was willing to give the developers some time to continue its development.
When I had the opportunity to conduct a more extensive evaluation of the newest iteration of OrCam in April of this year, I was ecstatic. I would finally get the opportunity to have some of my questions answered. Would the unit stand up to the tests I planned to put it through? Would I come away from this experience wanting to own the product, or would I wait for yet another hardware release before taking the plunge?
What follows are some thoughts regarding my experiences with the product, and hopefully some comments from the developers themselves.
A Physical Description of OrCam MyEye 2.0
In discussing OrCam, it is important to be aware of what the product is and isn't. OrCam consists of a piece of hardware that measures 3 × .83 × .59 inches with a camera on one end and a speaker near the other end. The device mounts on the frame of any pair of eyeglasses via a magnetic mount. The box contains several mounts so you can use OrCam on more than one pair of glasses if desired. The underside of the OrCam device is flat, and has a power button near the speaker. The top side of the device is rounded and has a touch bar that is raised for easy location. The bar clicks when depressed, so it is easy to know when action has been taken. With that said, the small size of the device along with the use of a touch bar might present a challenge for anyone who has dexterity issues. It is possible to adjust the sensitivity of the touch bar, although I did not play with this feature at all during my evaluation. OrCam comes with a lanyard which should be worn at all times because it's possible to accidentally bump the device and dislodge it from your glasses. On a couple of occasions, I would have launched OrCam across the room had I not been wearing the lanyard. Fortunately, the device never received even so much as a bump during these incidents.
OrCam does not allow a blind person to physically see their environment. Unfortunately, several sighted people in my community were under the impression that I was testing a device that actually allowed me to see. I had to repeatedly explain to people that OrCam is a camera that takes pictures, and reports feedback through a text-to-speech engine whose voice I could easily hear coming through its speaker, which was very near my right ear. Actual demonstrations of the device cleared up much of this confusion, although I constantly reminded people that I could not actually see anything through the glasses I was wearing.
During my trial of OrCam, I chose to use the English female Ivona Kendra voice that is the default, with the speech rate set to 220 words per minute. OrCam speaks many languages.
Setting Up OrCam MyEye 2.0
OrCam has so many settings that it's not possible to cover them all in this article. There are, however, a few things worth noting here. First, to get into the Setup menu, you must quickly press the Power button while swiping along the touch bar. Although I found this doable, it was definitely tricky at times. I often found myself placing the unit into suspend mode instead, which is accomplished by simply pressing the Power button. Another press of the button before the unit suspends will power it down, and I have had the frustration of doing that on more than one occasion.
Once in Setup mode, however, you move through various settings by swiping the touch bar to move from choice to choice, and tapping the touch bar to make a selection. Because of OrCam's small size, I found that instead of wearing the unit, holding it in my hand worked best. Also, I needed to take extra care when swiping and tapping the touch bar to avoid accidentally making choices I didn't want.
I found the menu structure and the voice prompts to be very intuitive, and I never had any trouble figuring out how to make any changes to OrCam's configuration settings. That said, I had two very significant issues during setup, one of which I was able to find a workaround for.
When setting the time, OrCam insisted on being five hours behind when I would restart the unit, even though I was very careful to make sure my time zone was set correctly. Eventually, I set the time five hours ahead, rebooted the unit, and was then presented with the correct time. OrCam representatives were not sure why I had this problem. It is possible to visit the set time page on a computer or mobile device and allow OrCam to read a command from the screen that will cause it to reset the time, but I never used this feature since my workaround did the trick for me. To hear the current time, simply hold your bare wrist in front of the camera as though you were looking at a watch.
The other issue I encountered involved connecting to my home Wi-Fi network. The OrCam user guide instructs you to visit a Wi-Fi set-up page where you are asked to enter the name of your Wi-Fi network along with the password. You then press a button to generate a QR code. From within Setup mode, while OrCam is connected to the charger, you point OrCam at your screen and wait for it to see the QR code and connect to your network. Unfortunately, I was never able to get this feature to work, even with assistance from my sighted wife. The only reason to connect OrCam to the Internet is to install updates to the device, something which I was unable to do during my evaluation. One OrCam representative told me that this process is often completed when the user receives the available one-on-one training, which is free to anyone who purchases the unit. Since the training I received was a couple hours away from my home, there was no way that the trainer could have assisted me in connecting to my home Wi-Fi network. Another representative from the company suggested that perhaps an app might be available in the future that would make this process easier to accomplish.
Unfortunately, I know of no way to update OrCam unless it is able to see a QR code containing the necessary information that will connect it to the Internet.
Light Requirements for OrCam MyEye 2.0
Whether you are reading a menu in a restaurant, learning a face for future recognition, or reading a church bulletin, OrCam requires a lot of light. Fortunately, OrCam will prompt you when not enough light is available for tasks such as face learning. Other tasks such as recognizing a piece of paper money in my hand were somewhat less clear to me. If I was having difficulty accomplishing a task, I always sought out more light before doing anything else.
Battery Life on OrCam MyEye 2.0: More, Please!
One significant change from the original OrCam device to the current one is that there is no longer a box that clips to your belt. Instead, OrCam is self-contained in a single piece of hardware. Unfortunately, the unit takes a significant hit when it comes to battery life due to this change. Instead of getting 4 or 5 hours from a single charge, you will now find yourself needing to recharge after only a couple hours of use—something that made it difficult for me to truly integrate OrCam into my daily workflow the way I would have liked. It only takes a half hour to recharge the battery, and it is possible to use the unit while it is connected to a small external battery charger, but I would honestly prefer to have a dedicated piece of hardware that contains a bigger battery and perhaps some easier-to-use controls rather than a self-contained unit with poor battery life. OrCam uses a standard micro USB charger, which makes it easy to recharge from anywhere.
Reading with OrCam MyEye 2.0
One of the things I enjoyed most about using OrCam was sorting mail. I was able to pick up an envelope, hold the clear window of the envelope in front of me, tap OrCam's touch bar, Allow OrCam to take a picture, and then begin reading the text that was visible through the window. Although not perfect, I was almost always able to learn where the piece of mail was from and often its nature. Although it's possible to perform this task with Microsoft's Seeing AI app using my iPhone 8 Plus, it was nice to be able to use both hands to steady the envelope without having to juggle the phone and the envelope at the same time.
If I desired, I could open the envelope and read the contents with OrCam. To begin reading from a sheet of paper, you simply hold it in front of you, tap the touch bar, and let OrCam snap a picture and begin reading. It is also possible to point at a piece of paper with your finger held straight up. OrCam sees your fingernail, and snaps a picture as soon as you move your finger away. This allows you to select various points in a document, and begin reading from that point.
Sometimes OrCam announces that there is unreadable text, and continues reading after that point. At other times, OrCam will tell you that there is more text below where it stops reading, but that it can't read that text. You then need to take another picture farther down the page.
Finally, you can tell OrCam to automatically begin reading a page if it sees three of four sides of that page.
Using hand gestures or the touch bar, it is possible to stop reading, pause reading, or skim forward and backward through text.
Face Recognition with OrCam MyEye 2.0
Perhaps one of the most fascinating features of OrCam is face recognition. If you want, you can have OrCam tell you any time it sees a face whether it knows that person or not. I enjoyed sitting in a mall and hearing that a man was in front of me, a child was in front of me, a young woman was in front of me, and a woman was in front of me. Some friends of mine had a few good-natured choice words for OrCam regarding its distinction between "woman" and "young woman." On a more serious note, I was on at least one occasion embarrassed by OrCam's insistent announcement that a man was in front of me when, in fact, it was a woman. Fortunately, the woman in question was not aware of what I was doing with OrCam. I can only hope that she didn't even hear the messages I was getting in my ear.
It is possible to have OrCam only recognize known faces, which is the default setting out of the box. It is easy to have OrCam identify the fact that a face is in front of the camera by simply tapping the touch bar.
To learn a face, you hold down on the touch bar while the subject of interest turns their face slowly one direction, and then the other. It is even recommended that the person speak during this process. OrCam takes a series of pictures for up to 30 seconds. You then have the opportunity to record the person's name. Each time my wife's face came into view while I was evaluating OrCam, I heard my own voice say her name.
You can store up to 100 faces in OrCam's database. It cannot download pictures from social media, nor can it recognize faces from a photograph. OrCam needs to take the pictures in order to properly identify the face in future. It is possible to modify or delete any or all faces in the database.
Currency Identification with OrCam MyEye 2.0
Another handy feature of OrCam is the ability to identify money. To be honest, I found it a bit awkward to hold money up to the camera and wait for OrCam to identify the bill in question. This didn't always work, and I blamed either poor lighting or a wrinkled bill for the inconsistent performance. It is possible that I wasn't always looking in the right place, something that is always a possibility when using OrCam. Since the camera is on the right side of your glasses, it is necessary to make some physical adjustments to ensure that the camera is pointing where you want it to. In one instance, when I was trying to read a plaque at a museum, OrCam told me that I was consistently pointing my finger too far to the right—a prompt that I found most helpful.
Although I like being able to identify money with OrCam, I find it much faster and less awkward to use the MoneyReader app in conjunction with my iPhone 8 Plus.
It is possible to learn and later identify objects with OrCam in the same way that you can with faces. It is necessary to take a picture of the object in question and name that object using your voice. It is my understanding that some people use this feature to identify phones, credit cards, and about anything else you can think of. To be honest, this wasn't a feature I could see myself making much use of, since there are so many alternatives available, such as making a braille label, or, in my case, using my I.D. Mate Galaxy to affix a bar code to the item in question. For this reason, I didn't really test this feature much.
Another feature that I tested with very limited success was the ability to identify bar codes using OrCam. The trick is to actually locate the bar code. One this happens, OrCam automatically reads the desired information with no further action required on the part of the user.
Finally, I did not test the color identification feature of OrCam, since I live with a spouse who is sighted. It is my understanding that this feature is still very much in early testing, but perhaps others will find it useful in the future.
The Bottom Line
There was a lot to like about OrCam MyEye 2.0. For reading short blocks of text, it worked great. Menus in restaurants presented a challenge because they contain a lot of text and restaurants are often noisy and dimly lit.
While it's possible to perform tasks such as identifying money and reading bar codes with OrCam, low-cost or even free apps for your smartphone accomplish these same tasks very efficiently.
The battery life of OrCam is short enough to make it difficult to use the product without always placing it in suspend mode. If the unit is always sleeping, how will it identify the face of your boss when he walks silently past the door of your office? It is possible to carry around a small external battery charger while you use OrCam, but this defeats the purpose of a self-contained unit, in my opinion.
My inability to connect OrCam to the Internet meant that I couldn't download updates to the product. Whether OrCam simply didn't like something about my home network, or I was not pointing the camera at the QR code properly, the process was not successful. If I were a paying customer, this would present a serious challenge to me.
Finally, OrCam MyEye 2.0 costs $4,500. The cost of the original unit was $3,500. When version 2 of the product was released, customers were given a $1,500 discount, but they still paid $3,000 for the new hardware. A payment plan that would allow customers to purchase OrCam over time with the option of upgrading the hardware during this process would be helpful in easing the sticker shock of this device.
I enjoyed using OrCam, and it was certainly a conversation piece as I interacted with my sighted friends and family. I look forward to seeing what future versions of OrCam will bring to the table, and I hope to evaluate OrCam MyEye 3.0 for AccessWorld one day.
Visit the OrCam website to purchase the product for $4,500, read the user guide, access various tutorials, and connect with the Israel-based company on social media.
Comments from Gill Beeri, Business Development Director - North America
The next generation OrCam MyEye 2.0 is the world's most advanced wearable artificial vision device. Communicating vital visual information by audio, the intuitively operated breakthrough assistive technology is wireless, lightweight, and compacted into the size of a finger.
OrCam MyEye is meticulously designed with the needs of people who are blind, visually impaired or have a reading disability in mind ? and doesn't adapt, or rely on, a platform that isn't originally accessible.
OrCam MyEye 2.0 delivers increased independence by reading printed and digital text aloud ? from any surface ? and seamlessly recognizing faces, products and more, all in real time.
Made from exceptionally durable, high impact plastic, OrCam MyEye magnetically mounts to either side of the wearer's eyeglasses or sunglasses frame.
A new hardware feature built in to OrCam MyEye 2.0 is LED lights — positioned on either side of the camera. The LEDs automatically illuminate in low-light environments.
OrCam MyEye is the only wearable artificial vision tech that is activated by an intuitive pointing gesture or simply by following the wearer's gaze — allowing for hands-free use without the need of a smartphone or Wi-Fi. All of OrCam MyEye's operation is processed offline, without requiring an internet connection – resulting in real time audio while ensuring data privacy.
OrCam periodically release software updates to existing users which add new functionalities to the device.
OrCam MyEye is available in 20 languages and in over 30 countries.
70% of the device's battery charges within the first 15 minutes.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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