What Type of Low Vision Device is Best for Me?
People with Macular Degeneration and other degenerative eye diseases often find help with magnification and scanning devices. These come in various shapes, sizes and price ranges. I would like to discuss the major categories of these devices and provide insight into who they would benefit. The determining criteria for any device should be to answer the question, “What specific task do I wish to accomplish?” Keep in mind, there are no perfect products. These devices can make reading easier and enhance your quality of life.
This is a broad category that begins with small hand-helds (with batteries in the handle) and increases to more extensive (and expensive) digital magnifiers with large screens. The non-digital magnifiers can range from $50 to $250 and are fixed magnification. This is often a good place to start for someone needing a small amount of magnification (1.5X to 8X).
The digital magnifiers are a relatively new category, but one that offers many options. These range in size (3.5” to 8”) and price ($300 to $1,400). They are a good next step after the smaller fixed magnifiers. Digital magnifiers can provide a wide range of options; adjustable magnification, different foreground and background color combinations, line markers, and the ability to download to a larger monitor or computer.
Portable magnifiers are not the best product for reading a book or newspaper. However, they are ideal for use outside of the home (supermarket aide or restaurant menu), or for simple tasks (reading the thermostat or controls on the microwave or stove).
CCTVs or Video Magnifiers
CCTVs or Video Magnifiers have been around since 1970 and still remain the most popular and easiest to use devices for basic reading (the mail, bills, newspapers, magazines, books, and writing checks). All of these devices utilize a large video monitor (20” to 24”) with a moveable reading surface (X-Y Table). They have automatic focus and are offered in color as well as black and white. Because of the larger screen size and widely adjustable magnification (2.5X to 80X), they are ideal for basic daily living. Typically, these range in price from $2,000 to $4,000.
Flex-Arm Video Magnifiers
The flex-arm systems are similar to the previous category but more compact. They do not have internal lighting or an X-Y Table. The camera is located above the monitor on a flexible arm that can moved into different positions. It can be used for near vision (reading), distance vision (viewing something across the room), or self-viewing tasks. Because of the nature of the camera, these devices can also be used for projects such as knitting, crocheting, hobbies and crafts.
Computer Related Devices
These are small cameras that are attached to a computer (PC, MAC, and laptop). They can view documents, both near and far, as well as capture these documents and read them back to you in an audio voice. Several items can read at a distance with audio capability. There are also computer magnification programs such as ZoomText, Magic and JAWS that will help make your computer easier to read.
The camera devices are mostly used by students in a classroom environment or for someone who has space considerations on their desk or work site. Prices on these devices range from $1,800 to over $4,000.
For people with severe Macular Degeneration or other eye conditions, sometimes magnification will not be effective. In these cases, an audio device that can scan and read your printed documents may be your best option. These products have come a long way since their invention in the mid-1970s. They are much smaller, faster, and less expensive (in the $1,500 to $2,800 range). They will not read hand writing, but they will read most printed material and read in different languages and voices. They will read a whole page (9 X 12) as well as a book turned sideways (two pages at a time).
Several manufacturers have combined the CCTV (Video Magnifier) along with the audio component to make a truly versatile product: magnification, scanning and reading. The flex-arm version of this, combines magnification, scanning and reading, distance and self-viewing all in the same product. Prices on these combined products would be in the $2,800 to $4,500 range.
Head Worn Devices
Head Worn Devices is the new category of products that are at the forefront of development. They look like regular glasses, but have video screens on the inside that will focus on a document or newspaper in your hand. In some cases, they can scan that document and read it back to you.
Currently, there are four manufacturers who make these glasses. NuEyes and E-Sight make the glasses with the video screens and are the most expensive ($6,000 to $10,000). OrCam makes a device that is audio only (no video) and has facial recognition as well as product recognition ($3,500). IrisVision is the newest device and looks like a “virtual reality” headset. The big advantage of this device is its 70 degree field-of-view. The cost is $2500.
How do I Procure these Products?
First and foremost, I council people to get a thorough Low Vision Evaluation from a qualified Low Vision Optometrist or Low Vision Ophthalmologist. This is a specific examination which includes a demonstration of numerous devices to help determine which device would be the best for both your eye condition and task.
After the evaluation, you may decide to purchase one or several devices. I suggest dealing with proven manufacturers. Some of the larger ones are Freedom Scientific, Optelec, HumanWare, Eschenbach, Enhanced Vision, and A-I Squared. You may be able to purchase them directly from your Eye Care Professional or you may want to buy them on your own. If you wish to buy them yourself, I have two rules: 1) Never buy anything on the Internet, and 2) Look for a local professional who specializes in low vision devices. Often, the local person will offer a free in-home demonstration of products. Always ask about the Return Policy (it should be 30 Days at a minimum); if they provide a Trade-In Program for older devices; and if they provide local service and support. These policies are very important when buying expensive devices.
Finally, I would encourage you to take your time with the procurement of any device. Have a specific task in mind, find a good Eye Care Professional for a proper evaluation and then locate a local professional low vision supplier to meet your needs. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
John Poth, President
SAGE Vision Technology, Inc.
West Chester, PA