January 07, 2022
4 min read
Calvin W. Roberts, MD, joined Lighthouse Guild in April 2020 after spending a lengthy career as a practicing ophthalmologist and working with various pharmaceutical companies.
Now, as the CEO of Lighthouse Guild, Roberts is working toward a future in which assistive technology is available for all. The ultimate goal, Roberts said, is a world in which no one is limited by their visual capacity.
Healio/OSN spoke with Roberts about Lighthouse Guild’s work to make assistive technology available and accessible for everyone.
Healio/OSN: How did you become interested in joining Lighthouse Guild, and what is the organization’s overall mission?
Calvin W. Roberts
Roberts: Two things motivated me to join Lighthouse Guild. When I was working in industry, I saw so many great technologies that never got commercialized because there was no viable business model for their success. It bothered me that there were so many opportunities to help people, but those technologies never got developed because of these business model challenges. The board of directors at Lighthouse Guild is committed to providing the most advanced technologies available and making Lighthouse Guild the world’s premier assistive technology center — not just assistive technology specifically designed for people who are blind and visually impaired, but all forms of assistive technology. Like never before, advances in artificial intelligence, program learning, facial recognition, augmented reality, virtual reality and 5G are all primed to benefit people who are blind and visually impaired. There is so much recent technology that has occurred elsewhere that could be repurposed to benefit people with vision loss.
Healio/OSN: Are there any kinds of upcoming technologies that you are personally excited about for assisting visually impaired people?
Roberts: All of the smart-home technologies. If you come to the Technology Center at Lighthouse Guild, you will see a smart home here. We have brought together all the latest in smart technology so that people can run their appliances, and these smart technologies are continuously being improved.
I am excited about a couple of technologies unique to this area, including OrCam, which does facial and object recognition and reads text. It is a magnificent piece of technology. I am also very excited about IrisVision. IrisVision is a unique technology that takes into account that people who have low vision have areas in their visual field that function better than other areas, whether it is from macular degeneration or glaucoma. What is amazing is how powerful some of the apps are you can download onto smartphones.
Healio/OSN: Where do you see assistive technology going from here?
Roberts: I think that people underestimate the tech savviness of seniors. All they want is technology that they can access, even with their limited vision. I see technology taking advantage of this large population of seniors who are blind and visually impaired and helping them. That opportunity makes it possible for this huge group of older visually impaired people to regain the functionality they had when they were younger.
Healio/OSN: What can ophthalmologists do to help patients access these kinds of technologies?
Roberts: What ophthalmologists need to do is have confidence that there are sites and organizations out there that can help their patients. I encourage doctors to go to our website for assistance. They can also refer their patients to the local low vision agency in their community.
Healio/OSN: What should engineers and developers keep in mind when developing assistive technologies?
Roberts: In general, all assistive technology tries to substitute the use of one sense to replace what the person has lost from their visual sense. They will convert or try to take things that were visual and make them auditory. What software developers need to keep in mind is that it is easy to have sensory overload — this person who is visually impaired is trying to walk around, and you cannot give them too much audio or tactile information to process. We have to figure out a way to keep it simple but still be effective. And the developers who are doing the best job now are the ones who are figuring out what information the patient needs and does not need and, through AI, being able to vary that.
Healio/OSN: What is the next problem software engineers should attempt to solve?
Roberts: Indoor navigation has proven to be a much bigger problem than outdoor navigation. There are many people who are trying to figure out how to improve indoor navigation. How do you walk through a grocery store knowing exactly where to find soup, ketchup and milk? And then, when you get to the shelf, how do you know which item is which? So, indoor navigation is a problem. The other big issue is funding. How do we pay for technology? Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurance do not pay for these expensive technologies. You have a situation in which, No. 1, many of the people who need this technology are not particularly well off, and No. 2, there is no insurance to help pay for it. We at Lighthouse Guild are advocating in Congress for tax credits for assistive technology and are trying to get coverage by Medicare and Medicaid for assistive technology.
Healio/OSN: What kind of impact does this technology have on the users who rely on them every day?
Roberts: When I think of technology for these people, I divide the needs into three buckets. Bucket one is navigation. Bucket two is home, including cooking, cleaning, organizing your home and closets, doing your shopping and all the things that we do on a daily basis to function normally. Bucket three is what I call productivity, and that means computers, communication and technology to help us work or go to school to learn. Our vision is a world in which no person is limited by their visual capacity. This technology gives people a feeling of confidence. It makes them feel productive. It makes them feel useful. In short, for many, it makes them feel more normal.