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Vision Buddy – new tech from Sight and Sound Technology

What is a Vision Buddy? It’s a wearable device for people with low vision. You can learn a bit more by watching the Blind Life review on YouTube. Imagine a scuba face mask which has a collection of tactile buttons on the outside and under edge. The Vision Buddy will let you magnify texts at a normal reading distance. Sight & Sound Technology loaned me the Vision Buddy for this review. 

It has Optical Character Recognition capability. This means it can read texts aloud, and it can connect to a TV Box so you watch TV with it. The device can also connect to a computer to provide a heads-up display. Both the TV and Computer inputs can be magnified.

About me

I’ve had central vision loss for the best part of 50 years, which is due to a macular condition. As a result, I am used to eccentric fixation and the use of magnifiers and telescopes. 50 years of central vision loss also means I am quite stuck in my own ways. Trialling the Vision Buddy is a chance to shake things up!

To use the Vision Buddy, or more accurately, to benefit from it you do need usable amounts of low vision. My level of vision prevented me from reading any of the prompts or information in in the display. For example, I could not see the battery or magnification level. Once on, the Vision Buddy robs me of my usable peripheral vision. This did feel a little claustrophobic at times.

First impressions of the Vision Buddy

I pulled the device from the box and thought: so many wires! Wires to connect to the TV, computer, power and external camera. They are all helpfully labelled and there’s only one port into the device. So, the wires weren’t as bad as I thought. The other thing is with a bit of fiddling the device is simple to use. I didn’t look at any instructions (because I couldn’t see them) just fiddled until it started working. The buttons are easy to feel, even though I’m not that sensitive. The feeling of claustrophobia due to loss of peripheral vision still nags away at me though.

The units are also a little heavy and I’ve got a big face! It also gets a little hot with prolonged use. I found that wriggling the unit on my face to get the exact distance of image to eye makes a considerable difference to image clarity.

Magnifier mode

Looking out into the distance is exciting! From my vantage point I could see the colour of ships well out into the middle of the English Channel. I have also used it to read a magazine at normal distance. But the magnification does pixilate at higher levels of magnification.

Optical magnification has greater clarity for the user. The field of view and ease of use makes the magnification option very attractive indeed. When my children were smaller the Vision Buddy would have made it simpler to keep an eye on them, especially out in the garden. The large field of view would have allowed me to watch them from much further away.

The magnification also helped me read street signs and video display boards at stations. It’s a not a discreet device for using in public though. I would be interested to trial the Vision Buddy at a sporting event such as a football match.

Optical Character Recognition

This works fairly well, but I am more likely to reach for an app on my phone than use Vision Buddy OCR. More voice prompts would help me use the Vision Buddy better. Sometimes I had to guess what the visual heads-up display wanted me to do. I could scan and read text within moments using the Vision Buddy though.

Connecting the Vision Buddy to the computer

The Vision Buddy can connect to your computer using an HDMI cable. When connected, it feels a bit like you are inside the monitor, which is a bit strange. Looking up and down allows you to look at enlarged sections of your screen. Text and images can be enlarged, and colour filters and inverse settings applied at the flick of a button.

The Vision Buddy can allow quick and easy access to visual images and text on computers. This means that some people with low vision may be able to use the computer without changing the settings. This also means that Vision Buddy could negate the need for specialist software for some people.

What I did experience was an immediate loss of my keyboard and mouse. I usually cannot see them clearly, but I can see where they are on my desk along with other useful items like my phone. Once the goggles go on, all you see is the computer screen. My vision loss means that I still needed to use magnification software in addition to the Vision Buddy magnification.

I would be interested to experiment with e-books and the Vision Buddy. The heads-up display could prove an interesting format for reading texts, particularly if they scrolled.

TV watching

Vision Buddy comes with a box which you connect to your TV set top box. It then transmits the TV signal straight to the goggles. It’s like you are in the programme, particularly when the image is magnified.  At times, I felt like I was actually in a jungle, with David Attenborough chatting away in my ear. The downside for me was that there wasn’t enough magnification to read text or menus on the screen. This means that it still ruled out using the Vision Buddy for family TV watching. You become isolated in your TV viewing.

Also, if you are used to using the remote control partly visually you do lose the ability to do this once the goggles are on. Again, simple to set up – HDMI cable from the transmitter into the box and away. Getting the sound to work a little trickier. If the Vision Buddy gave me a live feed at a sporting event or concert we would really be in business!

External Camera

I’ve experimented less with the Vision Buddy’s external camera.  I did find that plugging an external camera into it created a better-quality experience. The magnification improved and I could read newsprint-sized text and smaller without difficulty. The external camera was straight forward to set up. I intend to explore this functionality further. The Vision Buddy and attachments are portable enough to take along to a meeting or into education.

Final thoughts on the Vision Buddy

The Vision Buddy is simple to use and simple to setup. But you do need some useful vision, and to think carefully about when you would use it. I like the idea of the Vision Buddy and can see definite potential for use at the cinema and theatre. It would likewise be great at a sporting event, especially if accompanied with a live feed. I also value the field of view offered at high magnification. As an aid though, it is not discreet, so, you might have to be thick skinned to wear it in busy environments.

Jonathan Ward

Thanks go to Antony Thomas from Sight & Sound Technology for loaning me the Vision Buddy

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