Envision glasses visual aid review
We here at Blind Travels have been following the progress of the Envision glasses visual aid for a couple of years now. Recently, we reported on the availability of this new product and some of its key features. The glasses provide users with low or no vision the ability to read text, identify people and objects, and even quickly determine the denominations of currency. Interest in the Envision glasses was growing even during their early development, when they were awarded the Google Play award for accessibility in 2019. We reached out to Envision and they sent us a production unit to test. Does this new visual aid live up to the hype? Let’s talk about it…
The Envision glasses are an electronic visual aid created by Dutch tech company Envision (https://www.letsenvision.com/). The glasses offer blind and low vision users the ability to read text, identify currency, describe a scene, find objects and people, detect light and color and more. The glasses require a companion smartphone app which is available for iOS and Android. The glasses are user friendly, responsive, and offer excellent text recognition accuracy. Let’s take a deep dive into the look and feature set of this innovative visual aid.
The Envision glasses are built on the Google Glass version 2 platform, and while there was a lot of hype and media coverage around Google glass back in the day, most people did not recognize them when I was wearing them in public. The general reaction I got to the glasses was they look futuristic and cool. I found them comfortable to wear, the frames are metal and remind me of Oakley sunglasses with a very oversized right earpiece.
The glasses have two buttons, one located at the back of the unit, which is for power and wake and another on the top of the hinge where the frames fold. They are were lightweight, stylish, and easy to wear for a full day. I found them a refreshing change from other visual aids built on larger VR and AR hardware which tend to be large and uncomfortable to wear for long periods – and even worse tend to stand out in a crowd. The Envision glasses look like sunglasses with no lenses, and most people just ignore them.
Audio is delivered via a single speaker in the right earpiece. The sound quality was good, and the voice quality was on par with current technology screen readers. In most cases, I kept the volume around 30% and bystanders could not hear what it was saying, or just heard a low garble from the unit.
Features and Interface
Interaction with the Envision glasses is performed via a swipe pad located on the right earpiece just behind the hinge for the frames of the unit. The swipe pad recognizes single, double, and triple finger gestures, which may sound overwhelming at first, but with just a couple minutes of use I was able to easily navigate the menu structure. Audio descriptions and instructions were clear and concise, and tended to show up just when the user needed them most or required a bit of reminding about the functionality of a feature.
The read menu option offers the user Instant text, scan text and batch scan of documents. Instant text reads any text that appears in front of the unit and is great for reading labels on boxes and bottles. I also found instant text perfectly suited for use at fast food restaurants, and it was very good at reading the menu on the wall above the cashier. Instant text did not work well for reading a menu in a sit-down restaurant. I did find that the tool will often read things that are across the room, which can be a bit confusing when you are holding a box of cereal and it starts reading the label of a can of soup across the kitchen.
Scan text and batch scan work a bit different than instant text; they give audio directions to the user to position the document to be read for optimum accuracy. This feature works great for reading a book, as you hold it up the camera clicks and takes a picture and reads the text. There is usually a short delay while the glasses prepares the text, and the accuracy was very good to excellent. Quite often the unit will spell out a word rather than read it, but that was not a big deal. Batch scan allows you to scan multiple pages into memory at a time and have them read to you. The only downside with the scan text and batch scan feature is that they require a wi-fi connection to operate. The first thing I did when I got the review unit was to go to a restaurant expecting to have the glasses read the menu to me, but since the restaurant lacked a wi-fi connection the feature did not work. I was able to muddle through with the instant text as this feature does not require a wi-fi connection to operate.
Overall, the accuracy when reading text was well above my expectations, a trick I learned was to use a blank piece of paper over the page not being scanned when using the scan text and batch scan options. This seemed to improve the unit’s ability to frame the document a bit faster.
Call an Ally
The next menu option is Call. This feature allows the user to call a pre-approved (done through the app) person for assistance. Using the camera in the glasses, the person on the call can see what you are seeing in real time and help direct you in the event you are lost or cannot find something. To test this functionality, I added my wife and son to the system, which only took a few minutes. It should be noted that this feature only functions when the unit is connected to a wi-fi signal, so when I was at the airport, I had to log into a nearby restaurant wi-fi to accurately test. I hope in future versions of the software that this feature can be activated over the phone connection, as it would then function just like navigation apps like Be My Eyes.
Identify is next on the menu, which offers scene description, detect light, identify cash, and detect colors. Describe scene allows you to have the Envision glasses describe what it sees in the scene in front of you. The system seems to do a good job of picking out the most important thing in the scene, if there is a woman sitting in a chair by a desk with a computer on it, and a cat on the floor, the glasses will tell you: “woman sitting in a chair”, or “woman sitting in a chair at a desk”. This feature does require wi-fi, I found the feature useful in home and office settings.
Detect light uses a tone to inform the user about the amount of light around them. A lower tone denotes a darker ambient light, while a higher tone indicates brighter light. A completely blind friend found this feature useful when preparing for bed, to determine if they had left a light on. The rising tone allowed the user to determine the direction of the light that was still on.
Detect colors performed well when identifying many colors. The glasses accurately identified the change in color of an object as the amount of light present changed. A purple ball was identified as purple with good illumination, but as the light source was moved farther away from the object, the glasses identified different shades of the color until it appeared as dark gray. A really cool feature, and great for exploring your environment. Both the detect color and detect light feature worked without a wi-fi signal.
We all lose things, and need to locate objects, and the Envision glasses are very good at finding things. The first option in the find menu is find object. The user can scroll through the menu and select the glasses to find a Bench, Bicycle, Bottle, Car, Cat, Chair, Dog, Keyboard, Laptop, Motorbike, Sofa, Table, Toilet, Traffic light and Train. This feature does not require a wi-fi signal, and I found it very useful especially for finding traffic lights, benches, and chairs. When searching for an object, the glasses emit a tone when the object is in front of you, below are some examples illustrating the distance from the object when the “found it” tone was emitted. The glasses continue to emit the tone as long as the object the user is searching for is directly in front of them.
Find people is such a cool feature of the Envision glasses. Users train the glasses to find a specific person with the smartphone app. When training this feature, the app asks for a name, then directs the user to take five pictures of the person’s face. I found a straight on, then left, right top and bottom angles gave excellent results. Once you have taken the photos, the glasses take a couple of minutes to process, then find person will identify that person with near perfect accuracy. Entering a room with a person trained in the system yields a “Looks like (name)”. This feature does not require a wi-fi connection, and I found it to be very accurate even in low light situations.
The Explore also does not require a wi-fi connection and allows the user to explore objects in their surroundings. The function was able to easily identify the objects in the find object list above. This feature is handy if you are in a new room and looking to get the layout of furniture and other things. To get the most out of this feature, the user needs to survey their environment slowly and give the glasses time to identify objects in front of it. If you move too quickly, the glasses will miss things and not read them out to you.
I assume because of the processing power required for the find functions, these features did tend to drain battery life quite a bit quicker than most other features of the glasses. I would recommend a battery pack to charge the unit if you are traveling with the glasses and relying on them to give you the lay of the land in new surroundings.
The Envision glasses are a capable and fun visual aid to use, allowing the visually impaired user a lens into the visual world around them. Much attention to detail has gone into the creation of this unit, one feature I really appreciated was the voice announcing the battery level when charging. The unit also conveys the battery level, time, date and the wi-fi you are currently connected to with a double tap from the home menu location.
When you purchase a pair of Envision glasses, you are scheduled for a free onboarding call with the team which allows you to ask questions and gain some insight into using the glasses to their fullest potential. Take some time to get to know your glasses before the call, the team is very helpful in answering all of the questions you may have about the functionality of the unit. I love that this is a feature for all Envision glasses purchasers, and really sets a new user off on good footing when learning to use a product like this.
Shortly after I received the glasses, a software update came through which included functionality for the glasses to instruct the user in positioning documents for optimum performance when scanning. When attempting to scan a book or document, the glasses tell you to slowly move the page to the left or right, or move your head left or right. Small increments of movement are best here, otherwise the glasses tend to get a bit jumbled. Slow deliberate movements allowed the glasses to instruct and line up the material to be scanned quickly.
A second update during my testing time implemented voice commands, allowing the user to quickly access features like instant text, find object etc. To access the voice commands, the user depresses the hinge button where the large right earpiece attaches to the frame. There is a bit of a time delay when activating the voice commands, which required a bit to get used to. Once you have the timing down for issuing a command they work well even when the unit is not connected to wi-fi. I thought the Envision glasses were great with the manual menu system, as it was easy to navigate, but the addition of the voice commands makes the glasses even more useful in day-to-day use.
Everything we own these days needs to be updated, and it feels like some of those devices can take ages to complete an update (I’m looking at you, windows), but updating the software on the Envision glasses was quick and the audio instructions were clear and easy to follow. Read more about the team’s commitment to improving the platform below.
When it comes down to it, how well a product performs its features is directly related to the likelihood of a user continuing to use the product. The Envision glasses handled the tasks I threw at it quickly and accurately. Battery life was good, and I was able to get a day’s worth of use out of a full charge with moderate use. Identifying objects in the find object list was generally quick depending on the scene (as to be expected). If the object the glasses was looking for was by itself, they identified it much quicker than if there were other objects around that could distract the identification process.
Built as a platform
Time to get a bit more technical: we here at Blind Travels love to report on technology related to low vision and blindness, so many readers here have interest in the more technical aspects of a product, and I believe the Envision glasses are well worth delving into. Recently, I spoke with a couple members of the development team about the Envision glasses project, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the team is treating the glasses as a platform which can be expanded upon.
The Envision glasses are built on the Google Glass version 2 enterprise edition, but the code running the glasses is platform agnostic. What this means is that if Google decided to stop manufacturing the glass platform, Envision could pivot to another hardware platform without having to start from scratch. The team are forward-looking in terms of project longevity, which means investing in the platform as a customer or a developer appears to be a safe bet.
The core of the software running the Envision glasses is written with platform “wrappers”, meaning porting to support other glasses or AR type glasses hardware is something the team is considering. The team plan to make developer kits (SDK) for the glasses available as early as next year, though which development environments will be supported has not been set in stone as of this writing. I applaud this move, and as we seen with early game consoles, giving independent developers access to the development environment at a reasonable cost allows creation of some pretty cool (and often crazy) advances in the capabilities of a platform.
Envision are currently in talks with the developers of several well-known navigation apps commonly used by low vision and blind users with the hope they will eventually add their robust location and navigation abilities to the Envision glasses platform.
From the Envision website:
Camera: An 8-MP camera with a wide field-of-view.
WIFI and Bluetooth
Battery: 5-6 hours with regular usage. USB-C supported fast charging.
Audio: Directional Mono Speaker, USB audio and Bluetooth audio.
Robust and Light: Water and Dust resistant. Weighs less than 50 grams.
No visual aid is perfect, and with anything there is a learning curve the user must navigate to become adept enough at using the functions of a device to take full advantage of its capabilities. The Envision glasses are no different, and though the unit has a few idiosyncrasies, none of them are deal breakers in my book.
I did find the glasses entering sleep mode quite a bit when using them throughout the day. Users need to be aware of this because it can take quite a few moments for the system to come back online from a sleep. I surmise this is to preserve battery power, and I fully realize that there is a balance between preserving power on the unit and availability to the user. The Envision glasses are not an “instant on” device, and when the glasses are in standby mode there is no audio clue for them powering back on, something I suspect is a limitation of the hardware.
The primary user interface for the Envision glasses is the swipe pad on the right earpiece. Learning the interface is straightforward and within a couple of minutes it is easy to have all the gestures down to effectively navigate the menu. The swipe pad, however, does not always recognize two-finger gestures, which are the way to access the return to main menu and volume control options. It often took multiple tries to return to the main menu (two finger swipe down), and adjust volume (two finger swipe up). When using the glasses in the read mode, I often found myself inadvertently enabling offline mode while navigating. I believe this is due to the sensitivity of the swipe pad and the location of the offline mode menu option. Not a big deal, but it did take some getting used to.
The review unit I had encountered a few hiccups when powering up from a sleep or standby mode. If you do not use the glasses for a bit or fold them up and set them on your desk, they enter sleep mode. There is often a 30 second or longer delay when the glasses power back up to a useable state. There is no sound or user notification when the unit is starting up, and at first, I found myself thinking the unit was powered off, so I held the power button to restart. I assume this is a limitation of the hardware platform the glasses are built upon. In my testing, there were also several times I could not get the glasses to power up and ended up plugging them in which caused a startup. I am not sure if this is a common issue with the glasses or just an issue with the unit I was reviewing.
Standby battery life for the Envision glasses was a bit of an issue. From a full charge before bed, I set the glasses on my desk and returned in the morning with around 59 percent charge. This is a concern when traveling, as I used the glasses to navigate the airport before my flight then put them away until arriving at the next airport and the glasses were just below 50 percent charge. Not an issue, as I travel with a power brick for my USB devices, and the glasses offer fast charge, but I thought it was worth noting. Your use case and mileage will vary.
The Envision glasses have some difficulty reading and finding objects in low light situations. I commonly encountered the glasses giving the not enough light error when trying to read menus in darker restaurants. I am sure this is a limitation of the hardware and perhaps could be improved in future revisions of the product.
Features I would like to see
The quality and accuracy of the Envision glasses is great and having a pair of glasses that are lightweight and easy to use that will read things to a blind or low vision person will be a game changer for many users. However, there is always room for improvement no matter how awesome a product is. After a couple months of testing, here is a short list of features or improvements that would be of great benefit to the platform:
Refine quick text
Quick text tends to read things far away from the user and it can be a little confusing. The unit is just reading what is in front of it, that makes sense. If the glasses had the ability to read something the user is pointing to, it would be a natural way for the user to interact with the glasses. For those who have some vision, pointing at a sign or other text could be an amazing feature. If adding a feature such as this would limit the functionality of quick text in offline mode (when the unit is not connected to the internet) then perhaps another menu option for point read etc.
The Envision glasses do not recognize playing cards as of this writing. When I heard about the Envision glasses initially, I had dreams of playing poker or other card games without a sighted person to aid me. I know this functionality is being worked on at Envision, but I can imagine that teaching the AI algorithm to recognize cards will be a significant task. Just think about how many different card styles there are. Every playing card manufacturer has their own look. Envision could limit the functionality to a few card manufacturers (I smell a collaboration opportunity) and if card recognition could be implemented with the point to read option mentioned above, then low vision players could start enjoying games without braille cards.
Currently, users need to enter the currency menu function to identify bill denominations. It seems as though it should be able to access the data that allows the glasses to identify bills from the explore feature. This also goes for people that have been trained into the glasses system. When exploring a room, people were not identified by name, but rather man or woman, and what they are doing, like sitting in a chair. I hope future revisions of the software can make the explore or identify operations more general. If the user trains the glasses using the train envision feature, that training should roll out to the whole system, as it is a disconnect that the system can identify something in one mode but not in the others.
What do they cost?
Assistive technology can often come with a bit of sticker shock in terms of cost. The Envision glasses recently had a significant price drop to $2499 (USD), and part or all that cost may be covered by insurance depending on your plan. I have reached out to a couple different insurance providers (including my own) about the current percentage being covered and will update this review once I have some definitive numbers to share. For now, contact your provider and ask them if they cover a percentage of purchased visual aids.
Envision also recently announced that their companion app which has many of the features of the glasses is now free to use on iOS and Android. This is great news.
As someone who has low vision, I found the Envision glasses very useful, and enjoyed the time I had with them to create this review. The Envision team are committed to improving the product, and the addition of voice commands add another layer of usefulness to an already well thought out user interface. The glasses are stylish, and lightweight with good battery life. Considering the plans the team have for improving the glasses, this seems a good bet for a useful product for anyone with low or no vision.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Envision for sending out a review unit for me to test.
If you would like more information about the Envision glasses, here is a link to the manufacturer’s website.
Before you go…
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