London: Scientists are developing smart and sleek bionic spectacles which they say could soon be on sale and help hundreds of thousands of blind people see.

The "smart spectacles", being developed by a team at the Oxford University in the UK, uses tiny cameras and a pocket computer to alert wearers to objects and people ahead.

The cheap and lightweight glasses, which could be on sale by 2014 following successful trials, would make it easier for the blind to navigate roads in busy areas and even read bus numbers, the researchers said.

Elderly people with age-related macular degeneration are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries, a daily reported.

Past attempts to create such a device have resulted in large dark glasses with clunky cameras and bulky computers. But advances in technology mean it should be possible to create bionic spectacles that look almost indistinguishable from standard glasses.

Importantly, a price tag of less than 1,000 pound should make them affordable, the researchers told the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition.

"It is satisfying to think that we will be able to produce this at a cost that is going make it available to the people who will benefit the most," Dr Stephen Hicks, who has completed the basic research and is now, working on prototype spectacles.
He envisages transparent glasses with lenses studded with small light-emitting diodes and cameras the size of a pinhead at the outside top corners of the frame.

The cameras will take in the information the eyes should see and send it down a cable to a mobile phone-sized computer in the wearer's pocket.

The computer will process the information and simplify it into a pattern of dots. The LEDs in the lenses then light up in that pattern, giving the wearer vital information about what lies ahead. A flickering light could mean there is a person ahead, while a solid block might signify an object such as a flight of stairs.

While such information may seem unimpressive to the sighted, it could allow those who have lost much of their vision to regain sufficient independence to go shopping alone or take public transport.

Adding in an earpiece could allow more complex information to be transmitted. For instance, the cameras could capture bus numbers or information on railway departure boards to be analysed by the computer. Once processed, the information would be passed on to the wearer via a voice in their ear.

In time, the same principle could be used to help blind people to "see" the screens on cash machines outside banks or ticket dispensers at train stations.

The bionic spectacles rely on the wearer being able to perceive light, so will not be suitable for those who are totally blind.

Dr Hicks plans to do small-scale laboratory tests on the blind this year, before enrolling 120 people in a two-year trial that will explore the use of the spectacles in shopping centres and at home.