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Practical AI - a wearables use case from blind photographer David Katz

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett August 12, 2018
World-famous photographer David Katz, who revealed he was visually impaired at the end of last year, has started using wearable, AI-based assistive technology that he describes as “life-changing”.

David Katz
At the end of last year, internationally-renowned British photographer David Katz informed the world he was legally blind by releasing a film entitled ‘Through My Lenses’.

By this personal account of his life, he revealed that he had been visually impaired since birth due to a genetic condition known as ocular albinism. The condition is characterised by a lack of pigmentation in the iris, which makes it difficult to see things clearly or to perceive depth, although he can see shapes. But Katz also suffers from an astigmatism, which leads to blurred vision, nystagmus, which results in involuntary eye movement, and strabismus, which affects his balance.

Despite this situation, he went on to become a well-known London Fleet Street photographer who specialised initially in local sport but later went on to capture the images of global celebrities ranging from Princess Diana to Michael Jackson.

As a keen football fan, he had discovered as a child that using binoculars enabled him to watch games more easily as the lens reduced some of the problems brought about by his condition. At seven years old, his dad bought him his first camera and by the age of 17, he had secured his first photography job at a local paper. Katz says:

When I use a camera, it cuts out some of the clutter. One of the characteristics of my condition is that I experience photophobia or sensitivity to light. My brain’s overloaded so my eyes jump, which means, for me, it’s like coming out of a film into daylight is for other people. But when I look through a viewfinder, it dramatically cuts down the amount of information my brain is receiving - and I worked out over time that it actually made me a better photographer. It’s not about how far you see, but what you see and I see things differently to people with regular sight. I also had to work very hard, and I believe the harder you work, the better at something you become – although it helps if you love what you do too.

Because he was afraid that if people knew about his visual impairment, it could harm his career though, Katz told no one but his closest friends about his situation and instead came up with a number of techniques to mask it.

For one, he always ensured he was at the front of the action rather than hanging behind at the back of the press pack. He surreptitiously used a single binocular as a magnifying glass, and when technology went digital, he memorised all the buttons and shortcuts on his laptop and in Photoshop so as not to give the game away. Katz explains:

It was about being thorough in everything I did and learning things by heart. But I knew how to get information and I used a lot of intuition so I could find my way around without any real help.

Life-changing technology

However, Katz has recently started using wearable, assistive technology called OrCam’s MyEye,  which he says has changed his life. He first came across the device via a research paper and, after getting in touch with the company, began testing it out. The size of an index finger and weighing about 22 grams or less than an ounce, the product is essentially a small camera with machine learning software built in that attaches to the wearer’s glasses using a magnet.

Users simply tap the camera and point it at whatever they wish to read, whether that be books, product labels or bank notes, and the chargeable device will speak the text into their ear in real-time. It can also be programmed to recognise up to 100 faces and, if a certain individual is unknown, is able to tell if they are a man, woman or child without requiring a wireless or internet connection. Katz says:

One of the founders told me the reason they set up the company was that a relative, who is partially sighted, said to him: ‘You’re in technology, so why isn’t there more technology to help people like me?” So he went away and developed the product – and it’s completely unique. It communicates vital visual information by audio rather than augmenting someone’s residual vision like most other things on the market do. And it’s also the only device in the world that is driven by intuitive gestures. So you point to activate it and put your hand in front of your face to stop it.

OrCam was set up in Israel in 2010 and sold its first device in 2015, coming out with a second version in 2017. The company now sells the product, which is available in 15 languages, directly to consumers in 25 countries.

It can also be obtained from organisations such as the UK’s RNIB  and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides it to former members of the military for free. The offering costs $4,500 in the US and £3,500 in the UK, which is the price of a middle-of-the-road hearing aid. Katz continues:

It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it. When I was a kid, I had big, cumbersome glasses and used binoculars for distance, but if I could have used this at school, it would have been amazing. It’s very empowering and will be a life-changer for lots of people.

In a bid to try and make life easier for visually-impaired individuals around the world, he is now in the process of setting up the David Katz Foundation in the UK. The aim here is to provide people wherever they are based with the information they require as it is not always easy to come by, and to point them in the direction of what tools are available to help and support them. Katz concludes:

I’m creating awareness so that if people find their child has a condition that affects their sight, rather that relying on their doctor to know about it, they can access the right information easily themselves. I’m trying to make people aware of what’s available as it can make such a big difference.

My take

In a sense, it is amazing that this technology has only just come to market quite recently. Like all good ideas, it is simple and patently obvious once someone else has made it a reality. But if it works as well for other people as it does for Katz, it could well be a game-changer for people with visual impairments.

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