Significance: For people with limited vision, wearable displays hold the potential to digitally enhance visual function. As these display technologies advance, it is important to understand their promise and limitations as vision aids.
Purpose: The aim of this study was to test the potential of a consumer augmented reality (AR) device for improving the functional vision of people with near-complete vision loss.
Methods: An AR application that translates spatial information into high-contrast visual patterns was developed. Two experiments assessed the efficacy of the application to improve vision: an exploratory study with four visually impaired participants and a main controlled study with participants with simulated vision loss (n = 48). In both studies, performance was tested on a range of visual tasks (identifying the location, pose and gesture of a person, identifying objects, and moving around in an unfamiliar space). Participants' accuracy and confidence were compared on these tasks with and without augmented vision, as well as their subjective responses about ease of mobility.
Results: In the main study, the AR application was associated with substantially improved accuracy and confidence in object recognition (all P < .001) and to a lesser degree in gesture recognition (P < .05). There was no significant change in performance on identifying body poses or in subjective assessments of mobility, as compared with a control group.
Conclusions: Consumer AR devices may soon be able to support applications that improve the functional vision of users for some tasks. In our study, both artificially impaired participants and participants with near-complete vision loss performed tasks that they could not do without the AR system. Current limitations in system performance and form factor, as well as the risk of overconfidence, will need to be overcome.