Advancing technologies in sight
Its ethos is to create and source affordable and functional products to improve quality of life for the blind and those with low vision and as Kate Chapman finds, Lincolnshire firm VisionAid seems to be providing all the right solutions.
The family company, which has headquarters in Spalding, makes some of the most advanced pieces of equipment available to help those living with sight problems and blindness, including the world’s first standalone reading machine capable of capturing A3 pages – the ReadEasy Evolve, launched earlier this year.
VisionAid has two divisions: VisionAid Technologies, selling more than 1,000 items from over 100 different suppliers to customers in the UK, and VisionAid International, which designs and manufactures its own products and technology onsite, to sell to distributors in over thirty countries.
Items in its catalogue include a range of video magnifiers, which offer significant advantages over traditional magnifying glasses by providing variable magnification, together with a range of enhanced, high contrast viewing modes to make reading text easier.
Other exciting technologies include wearable video magnifiers, large print keyboards and specialist software for computer access, adjustable lighting, mobility aids and reading machines all designed to help people with visual impairments such as macular degeneration and those who are blind or dyslexic. Stevie Wonder and the late Denis Norden are among some of the company’s past customers.
“It’s all about helping people to regain their independence and improve their quality of life, by assisting them to find the best, most affordable and suitable solutions that will make the biggest improvement to their lives,” explains managing director, Ellis Ellis.
“Everyone’s visual impairment and needs are different and our core ethos is about offering the widest selection of products possible to make sure the person can find the best possible solution for their specific requirements.
“We’re always looking for ways we can improve our products and customers continuously give us feedback about what they would like too, which allows us to improve existing solutions and it helps generate new product ideas for the future.
“Many of our customers are older people, so it’s even more rewarding to help them regain their independence, which they may have lost for many years, so they can do things like read their own post or newspaper, check medication, do crosswords and follow cooking instructions without having to wait for a relative or neighbour.”
The independent family firm was launched by Ellis’ father, John, in 1996. John worked for ICI during the late 1960s and 1970s and then began helping an agency selling Tieman (now Optelec) equipment, working on computer systems for the low vision industry, before taking the agency on himself. Initially he had just six products but soon began adding more to his catalogue. At this time, it was just John and his wife Sue, until 2004 when Ellis joined the business full-time.
“I’d been helping my father since I was 13, building computer systems with him for visually impaired users. When I was 16 I made a prototype reading machine for my GCSE DT project – it was designed to do exactly the same thing as our ReadEasy Evolve but I hadn’t made the software, just the case and the hardware and my father went on to sell it!” recalls Ellis.
“After completing my computer science degree at Warwick University, I was about to head to France for an IT job when my circumstances changed and so I came to work full-time for VisionAid, initially just to help out over the summer while I looked for a job in the UK. I quickly realised how enjoyable and rewarding providing solutions for visually impaired people was and five months later had designed our own reading machine – I’ve never looked back.”
Sadly, John passed away in 2011 just as the manufacturing arm of the business was starting to expand, but Ellis has continued moving the company forward together with the help of his mother, Sue, wife Sarah and their dedicated team.
Although still a small company, they have grown from eight to more than twenty employees with a view to recruiting more and have recently expanded their premises.
“We released our first reading machine back in 2004 and we’re now on the seventh generation ReadEasy, which has been three years in development.
“Technology is moving incredibly fast at the moment, and it’s all been spurred on by the developments of mobile phones and mobile tech. The next big thing I think we’re going to see is a lot more wearable and virtual reality equipment in the home.”
VisionAid doesn’t have a physical shop but product demonstrations are available at its head office and they provide completely free and no-obligation in-home demonstrations anywhere in the UK, so people can try out solutions first. Items can also be ordered through its website.
VisionAid also works with blind societies nationwide, who let members know about the different types of equipment available and staff also attend hundreds of local exhibitions every year – including national ones like Sight Village – to showcase their products. Other clients are referred to the company following education or workplace assessments.
For more information about VisionAid and its products please visit www.visionaid.co.uk or call them on 01775 711977.
WORLD FIRST TECHNOLOGY
One of VisionAid’s most innovative developments, released earlier this year, is the ReadEasy Evolve; the world’s first portable, standalone reading machine capable of capturing whole newspaper-sized pages, magnifying them and simultaneously reading them out loud.
It is described as the world’s fastest and most accurate device, coping well with complicated layouts of documents and tables. It can read text as small as 5pt in size, in more than 30 languages and takes just a few seconds to start reading.
“Our standalone machine is simple and easy to use – in fact anyone of any age can use it,” said Ellis. “We have people over the age of 100 using it and even children as young as 4. We’re really excited about it as in many cases it can help give a quality of life and independence back.
“We’ve been working towards this machine for three years – it has been life-changing for many of our elderly customers, as it means they can access this technology without the need for a computer, which many don’t have or find difficult to use.
“We’re getting great feedback, and with all our own products made on site, we’re struggling to keep up with demand for this one.”
Priced at £1,695 other features of the ReadEasy Evolve include a patented magnetic attachable camera, which easily slots in and out of place, a lift out handle making it easy to move and transport and the option of a wireless control panel.
Another of VisionAid’s top selling products is the Helix HD – a powerful video magnifier which can magnify things up to 100 times their normal size. The compact machine also folds down for easy transportation and weighs just 1.1 kg (2.5 lbs).