Last week I had to go up to London for a couple of days, so I took the opportunity to spend a long afternoon exploring Sight Village, an exhibition showcasing products, services and organisations for visually impaired people. Their main show each year is in Birmingham, but they also have roadshows in Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, in this case, London. So I thought I’d do a write-up bout my visit. Which, fair warning, is quite long! But I’ve added headings throughout to split it up, in case you want to jump to any part in particular. So I hope you find it interesting. 🙂
Getting to the venue in Kensington was nice and easy. This was my second visit to London this year, and on both occasions I’ve had great success using Citymapper to get around. I love their app, as I find it very easy to use. You just tap in your destination (a few characters is usually enough to bring up the right one to click on) and, voila, you’re shown the quickest route to get there, with various alternative options as well. And if you’re out and about, you can just ask it to take you home, and it will do so. It uses data from Transport For London’s systems to let you know when buses and trains are arriving and if there are any diversions or closures that you need to be aware of. And it has tube maps and city maps that you can zoom in on. So I find it very useful.
Once I’ve figured out the route in Citymapper, I will often couple that with Google Street View as well, so I can virtually walk along the streets I’m going to be on, getting a feel for landmarks and features before I physically set foot there. Citymapper are actually incorporating Street View images using a feature called Telescope, though it doesn’t bring them up full screen – it literally is like you’re looking through a round telescope. So I still use the Street View app for that. In any case, it helps me to feel more confident that I know where I’m going when I get somewhere, so I’m not wandering around getting lost. I’ve used Street View a great deal for that reason over the years, it’s incredibly useful.
Apparently there were assistants at High Street Kensington station in red t-shirts to help guide people to the venue, but I didn’t happen to spot any waiting around. However, I did pass a couple of the guides helping blind people as I walked to the venue, as well as in the show itself, so they were definitely around. I didn’t need their help though, having already planned the route. I knew I just had to cross over some traffic lights and go straight up a side street, and I was there. I had also pre-registered on the website, so once I got in the building, I was at the reception desk for just a few seconds, picking up a bag from them to carry things in. I could have asked for a sighted guide to help me around the exhibition if I’d wanted, but I didn’t feel the need to, and I managed fine without one during the day. But it’s good to know that they were available. They were clearly making an effort to ensure people got help if they needed it, which was great.
The exhibition itself was spread across 2 large rooms, and there were nearly 60 exhibitors there. I had a few particular stands in mind that I wanted to aim for, but otherwise I was just happy to walk around and approach any stands that weren’t busy at any given moment, just to get a feel for what was available, as I haven’t been to an exhibition like this for a very long time.
My main reason for going to this one, apart from the fact that I was in London at the time, was to do research for future reference rather than any immediate purchases. I’m hopefully moving to London very soon, so being aware of what’s available is going to be very handy. So with that in mind, this exhibition has allowed me to top up the disability section of my web browser’s bookmarks with companies and organisations that I have an interest in, as well as having physical literature about them. So it’s been a very useful reconnaissance mission, effectively.
There were quite a lot of visitors, but not too many – it was nice and easy to get around, and it was never difficult to find places that I could approach and talk to people. And the time soon flew by – I was exploring for a good 4 hours, but it didn’t feel like it, and even then I’d only visited about half the stands I reckon. I could have gone back the next day to see some more, but I was happy enough with what I’d seen, and I had other things I wanted to do the next day anyway.
I didn’t go to any of the seminars either – I forgot they were going on while I was browsing anyway, to be honest, but also none of them were of major relevance to me. They would have been interesting for other people though (e.g. accessible Android technology, Guide Dogs, braille devices, tactile and scented greetings cards, etc), so they were a great idea. There was one on holidays abroad that could have been interesting for me to go to, but even that wasn’t essential.
In terms of the products available, there were obviously a lot of magnification devices and software to look at and play with. And if you’re familiar with that kind of thing, then there wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking here. Things have improved a little over the years, of course, in terms of camera quality and software, and small new features here and there. But when all you want to do is magnify things, and change the colour scheme if necessary, there’s only so much you can do to improve the experience now. They all have good quality screens, they all zoom in a long way, they all have nice easy controls, and so on. If there has been any shift in focus, so to speak, it’s towards devices that are mobile and portable, which is inevitable these days, and very useful. But there are plenty of desktop devices as well, including some that have cameras you can swivel in all directions. So if you’re shopping around for a new magnification device, check out as many as you can – there won’t be huge differences, but there may be little things here and there that swing the decision for you.
The most innovation, however, seems to be in the field of OCR (Optical Character Recognition), which allows you to convert printed text into speech. This has been around for a while now, but as camera quality has got particularly good in recent years, and the related software has improved, so the responsiveness and accuracy of text recognition has also improved. The devices I saw, that I’ll mention in a moment, were very responsive, reading things back pretty quickly and accurately. So I was very impressed. Of course, OCR isn’t perfect, and I don’t think it ever will be – sometimes the print quality simply isn’t good enough, particularly for things like newspapers, and it will always struggle with handwriting I’m sure. However, the experience of using it is still much better than it used to be, and these types of devices will be extremely useful for some people, so they’re worth looking into if you feel you’d need it.
Some companies were also pushing accessibility software for smartphones, particularly for Android. One of the seminars was even on this subject I believe. And that’s great – but then, many of them offer the very features that Apple have built in to their iPhones as standard, so you don’t need to buy extra software to do it. So it ultimately depends on which ‘ecosystem’ you prefer to be part of. I’m certainly not going to get into an Apple vs Android argument here! I prefer Apple myself, as you’ll know from elsewhere in this blog, but that’s just personal preference. If you prefer Android, that’s cool too. I don’t get the hatred or superiority that people display in either direction sometimes – if it works for you and you’re happy with it, then go for it.
All in all, there was plenty to look at and it was all very interesting, and I came away with a bag stuffed with literature, to read through and keep for reference. So let’s get on to some detail on some of the stuff I learned about. Feel free to comment if you have experience with any of the things I mention.
Companies & Products
I’ll mention the OrCam first, as it was my favourite item in the entire show. It’s simply a camera that you attach to the arm of your glasses, pointing ahead of you. You can then point at some text you see anywhere – on paper, on signs, etc – and it will recognise the pointing gesture and read the text back. It will also recognise faces and products that you’ve programmed it to recognise (i.e. people you see regularly and products you use regularly). So it will announce when someone you know is approaching you, or what product you’re looking at. I tried it at the show and was blown away by it, as I haven’t seen anything like it before. It was very responsive and spoke very clearly, and seems like it could be very useful.
Of course, I only got to experience it for a few minutes, but if you want to find out how well it works in the real world, check out Holly’s excellent post about it – Me and My OrCam. It seems to back up the claims that were being made about it at the show, which is great. It’s a simple idea really, but it seems to work really nicely from what I can tell.
This company have also produced an interesting wearable device called SightPlus, which I got to try out at the show. It’s very different to the OrCam, and much bigger too – it looks a little bit like one of those virtual reality headsets you get for games consoles these days. But it’s still comfortable to wear and does the job it claims to do.
It basically has a screen inside that shows you what’s in front of you, wherever you move your head, and by using the small remote in your hand, you can zoom in and out and change the colours of the display to make things easier to see. I tried it in the show and was pleasantly surprised by it. I thought its apparent bulkiness on first seeing it might be an issue, but it didn’t seem to be. The screen inside doesn’t fill your field of vision, but it’s a good enough size, especially when you can zoom in on things anyway.
They had eye charts there, like you get in an opticians, and I could only read the top 2 lines with my normal eyes. But with the headset on, I was able to read to the very bottom, tiniest line quite comfortably, which was very impressive. And I was able to look around the room and zoom in quite a long way. Obviously, the more zoom in, the lesser the quality gets to a degree, but it was good enough.
Apparently many people have found it useful so far – such as children in the classroom who can now read the blackboard (they can put stickers on it to personalise it, and other kids tend to be impressed by such a unique gadget), people doing things like sewing and crafts, people at home watching TV, and even someone who just liked to sit in the park and use it to watch the world go by, focusing on the wildlife and people and things like that, which they could easily do before. Obviously you wouldn’t walk around with it on, it’s designed for activities you’re doing when you’re sitting still, but it seems to help with those pretty well.
So it was quite interesting to look at. It is a very new product and they’re still refining it a people give their feedback, but what they have already is pretty good. So it’ll be interesting to see how it develops as they continue improving it.
These are all companies that manufacture and/or distribute things like magnifiers, text-to-speech readers, braille devices and other useful gadgets. As I mentioned above, many of the devices are portable, such as the Traveller from Optelec, and the Prodigi from Humanware, both of which I got to have a play with. They were both easy to use, and folded away very nicely so they were easy to carry around. I also liked the fact that Vision Aid were offering lighting solutions (e.g. special table lamps), for people who need it to help them read better.
In terms of text-to-speech readers, I got to see both the ClearReader (from Optelec), and the i-Reader (made by a company called Rehan, but distributed by Pamtrad). I got to try out both of them, and they were very easy to use, very quick to read the text back and very accurate. And they were very portable as well. I liked the Clea It’s designed to look a little bit like an old portable radio, which gives it quite a nice appearance. The leaflet I got says there’s a choice of 31 reading languages and 59 voices and accents, and you can archive documents it scans for convenience as well. So it’s a nice bit of kit.
It’s well worth flicking through the product ranges of all these companies to see what they do, as I can’t mention everything, and there may be a few products that you didn’t realise were available, that might be useful to you. Some of the products aren’t cheap, of course, but that’s something visually impaired people are used to, unfortunately. If you use these things a lot, then you get your money’s worth out of them for sure – but you need to be able to afford them in the first place. With that in mind, Humanware were particularly keen to highlight the fact that they allow you to pay in interest-free instalments with 0% APR over 3, 6, 9 or 12 months. So that might be helpful for some people.
This company focuses more on the computer side of things, offering software and hardware to help people who are visually impaired or blind, or who have reading and learning difficulties. So they offer screen readers, speech reading software, video magnifiers you can attach to your computer, text-to-speech readers, braille devices, and so on. I use Dolphin’s Supernova on my PC at work, but Zoomtext looks pretty good as well, having tried it briefly at the show – they’re very similar pieces of software really, although Supernova does have a habit of locking up the computer occasionally, so Zoomtext could be a viable alternative if I wanted to try another product at any point, as I know it’s popular and widely used.
This company offers specially designed smartphones to help visually impaired people. I’m very happy with my iPhone, so there was nothing here I personally wanted, but for some people I can see these being very useful, as the interface looks pretty clear and nicely designed.
I stopped by this stand and had a chat to the guy there for a good 10 minutes or so. I’m already familiar with what they do, as are many other people I’m sure, so there’s not a lot that needs to be said really. When we do move to London, visiting their shop is going to be pretty essential, they do have some very useful stuff in there. We also use their Overdrive service for talking books, which has been working very well. I’ve previously written a blog entry on how we use Overdrive, and one on audiobooks in general.
I enjoyed chatting to the guy on this stand, and picked up a leaflet and a newsletter form them. They help visually impaired people in the London area get into sports like athletics, cricket, football, tennis, bowls, archery, etc, which is a very good idea, and they seem very nice. And it’s very cheap at £5 per year, or £50 for life membership. When I do move to London, I’ll be exercising more by walking around to all sorts of places anyway, as I’ll be out and about a lot I’m sure.. But I also know where the local gym is in the area I’m moving to, so I ought to sign up there. And being aware of organisations like this could be useful too – I’m not really sporty, but I’ll keep them in mind just in case.
This organisation, who have the cool abbreviation of ELVis, offers support for people with sight loss in the East London area, which is where I’ll be moving to. This and its sister organisations around London have been set up by the London Visual Impairment Forum and the Thomas Pocklington Trust. They offer support and help you to find events and societies for visually impaired people in your particular area of London, so this is East London society is one branch of that. The newsletter I picked up shows that events in the borough I’m moving to include a visit to the chocolate museum in Brixton – didn’t realise they had one, but it sounds nice! – a Christmas dinner in Romford, and a members meeting. Most boroughs have Christmas dinners and members meetings planned in fact, but other activities on offer include games evenings, meetings to learn accessible technology, breakfast clubs, a visit to a design museum, a trip to an audio-described pantomime, sports activities (the news letter also has a promotional page for Metro Blind Sport) and other things. So it could be something to keep an eye on once I relocate.
Stopped by this stand briefly and picked up a flyer. If you’re in the London area, you can get in contact with them if you need help and information or just someone to talk to about sight loss, and according to their website they have community projects going on as well, with free classes to help learn basic skills.
If you have a higher rate of mobility allowance, this organisation enables you to get a lease a car, scooter or electric wheelchair, with all the running costs included, so you just pay for the fuel. In the case of a car, you also get 2 named drivers (people you know) who can drive you around, and the organisation pays for their insurance, so it doesn’t matter if you can’t drive. apparently the scheme has more than 600,000 customers, it sounds like. See this video for more information, as well as the website link above.
This effectively gives you a human version of voice-activated helpers like Siri or Cortana. By pressing a special button on the back of the mobile phone, you can talk to a real, live operator, who will dial a number for you, send text messages for you, read text messages back to you, look things up on the internet and read it back to you, and so on. They’ll also block calls from people you don’t know. If you have Siri, Cortana or whatever, and are happy with them, then you won’t need this. But they’re not always accurate and, for some people, I can see that having a human being helping you out would be much easier.
I didn’t visit a stand about this, but Queen Alexandra College (where the show was held) included this in the bag I was given to carry around. As the name suggests, it’s a commercial company owned by the college, that will convert things into braille, large print and audio, so you can make your documents accessible to as many people as possible.
This company have developed a product called the Roommate. It can be placed on the wall disabled toilets, and will give an audio description of the layout of the room when you enter, so you know where the door lock, toilet, sink, emergency pull cord and other features are, saving you having to enter with somebody else or having to feel your way around and discover it all for yourself. Sounds like it might be helpful for many people.
Barclays were the headline sponsors of the show, and were demonstrating some of the things they’ve done to make life easier for their customers, particularly those with a visual impairment. For instance, they had debit cards with clear numbers, a big arrow to show which way round it goes, and notches on the end of the card that you can feel – either to help you figure out which way round it is, or to help you distinguish them from other cards you have. They also have cash machines that provide audio guidance when you plug headphones in, although they didn’t have one on display at this show.
The main product they were promoting, though, was a band you could attach to your watch or wristband, which allows you to pay where contactless payments are accepted. You top it up from your debit card via their app, which means if someone steals it, they only have access to the funds on the wristband, not your card, and you can cancel the wristband to stop them using that too. And if you do lose it or it’s stolen, Barclays will refund your account with what was on it. It seemed like a very simple little device, and it would save you fumbling about for your card or phone if you want to make a contactless payment – all you have to do is hold your wrist to the sensor, and job done. It should work with any credit or debit card too, I don’t think it has to be a Barclays one. So it’s good to see that they appear to be making an effort to help disabled customers.
Last, but far from least, this is the school that I used to go to, which educates and supports pupils with visual impairments, and many of the children have other complex disabilities too. My time there was very worthwhile and enjoyable, and I was delighted to meet a member of staff that I knew at the show, so I spent a good half an hour talking to him and the lady he was with. So, yes, I am biased where they are concerned, but without their help and support during my younger years, things probably wouldn’t have worked out so well, so I’m very grateful to them. Of course, the place has changed a lot since I left, but it’s great that they’re still going and are still giving so much valuable support to so many children and their families. So if you have a child with a visual impairment, then they’re well worth checking out. The prospectus I picked up is very nicely designed, as is their website, plus they have charity shops and other things going on, so they really are making a good effort to promote themselves, on top of the excellent work they do for their students on campus.
There were a few other stands I would have liked to have got to but didn’t get the chance, such as VocalEyes, Traveleyes, British Blind Sport, Calibre Audio Library and The Talking Watch Shop (from Verbalise Ltd). But there’s only so much time one can have and, as I say, I got to see most of the main ones I was after, plus I got to learn about a few others that I hadn’t been aiming for. So I’m very happy, and I’m not concerned about the ones I missed – they’ve all got websites if I want to find out more of course.
And apart from all those, other companies that had a presence at the show, and will be worthwhile for some people to look into, were:
- Advantage Carbon Fibre Canes
- Arts Coaching Training
- Associated Optical
- BAUM Retec
- Blind Children UK
- Blind Veterans UK
- Centre For Resolution
- Computer Room Services
- Dolphin Computer Access
- England & Wales Blind Golf
- Enhanced Vision
- Eone Timepieces
- Goalball UK
- Guide Dogs
- Home From Home Care
- Jubilee Sailing Trust
- Keratoconus Self Help And Support Association
- Live Braille
- Macular Society
- Micro and Anophthalmic Children’s Society (MACS)
- New College Worcester
- Professional Vision Services
- Queen Alexandra College
- Royal National College For The Blind
- RP Fighting Blindness (Retinitis Pigmentosa)
- Seable Holidays
- SMC Ford
- Talking News Federation
- VICTA Children
- Vision Hotels
- Visualise Training and Consultancy
Overall, it was a very worthwhile and interesting trip, and I’m very glad I did it. Especially as I got to meet James and a few other people from the Aniridia Network afterwards as well, which was an added bonus! That was a very nice way to end the day.
There was definitely something for everybody at Sight Village, and I highly recommend that you go to one of their events if you get the chance. It gives you plenty of opportunity to talk to people and see the latest things that are available, in terms of technology or support services or sports or whatever you’re interested in. You could be surprised what you find – or, dare I say, it can be a bit of an eye-opener, in more ways than one!:)