What does each kind of video magnifier do? Who can get good use from them? Where can you get one? How much will you pay?
I interviewed Bob McGillivray, Director of Low Vision Services at the Carroll Center and Low vision Engineering Consultant to the Mass. Commission for the Blind.
First what is a video magnifier, sometimes called a closed circuit TV (CCTV)?
A video magnifier is the go-to tool for people beginning to struggle with reading using just glasses. It offers a magnified well contrasted image of whatever you want to read. You put a book, letter or pill bottle under the video magnifier, which has a light and downward pointing camera with a screen on top. You switch on the magnifier, and a bright enlarged image springs up. The newer desktop, portable and hand held video magnifiers (HHVM) are sleek modern machines, with color, brightness and contrast options, auto focus and push button magnification. Some also have high definition (HD), and lining and windowing features to highlight or isolate the part of the print you want.
Bob says: it is important to find out as much as you can about all the different video magnifiers and try out one or two models before you buy anything. (For instance high definition only suits some people.) There is a lot to know! It is a bit like buying a car. You need to test drive a few and understand all the options. And even after you have done all that, some people do have problems finding the best way to use their vision with a video magnifier, or they get headaches and eye strain.
Do all video magnifiers offer the same opportunities to read print?
Low vision professionals define reading tasks in three ways, and there are video magnifiers to suit.
The three types of reading are:
1. Spot reading: a few words or a couple of lines, such as a price tag, phone number or business card
2. Short term reading: a bill, package directions, or the warning on a medication label
3. Extended or continuous reading: a magazine article or book
Classes of video magnifier
For spot reading
Mini and micro models (2-3 inch screen); magnification: 4x-8x; fits in your shirt pocket
The Pebble Mini, is a popular model, $300 approx.
Models for spot and short term reading
Handheld models (4 to 5 inch screen); magnification: 5x to 14x; handle folds after use; fits in pants pocket or purse; can be used to read a price on a grocery shelf; or placed flat on a desk.
The Ruby HD (4.3 inch screen,) is a popular model, price $650 approx.
There is also the Ruby XLHD,price $900 approx.
Models For extended or continuous reading
Portable models, mainly used on a desk or table (7inch screen); magnification: 4x to 22x; fits in purse or bag; best for continuous text reading and some limited spot reading.
Optelec compact 7HD, is a popular model, price $1300 approx.
Bob says: The handheld models with a 4 inch screen are the most popular. They can also capture an image to look at later.
Hannah says: For people like me who have more severe vision loss, none of the handheld video magnifiers work. I do use desk top models but only for spot reading. At the other end of the spectrum, we have a college age client who does not use a video magnifier at all. He snaps a photo of a price tag or label with his smartphone, enlarges it, and reads the price close up. He does not have to look conspicuous bent over a grocery shelf with his nose an inch from the price tag, and the smartphone is in his pocket already. (Smartphones magnify about 1.5x.)
Bob says: A smartphone image will work in a pinch for spot reading tasks. But they usually do not give the quality of image or the features of an HHVM. Also mobile cameras are sometimes difficult to keep in focus for close up photos.
Care of the portable models
Bob says: All the portable video magnifiers have rechargeable batteries. Most of the small models have a battery life of three hours or less, and some of the batteries do not have great durability. Many models now have lithium batteries which are better. In any case an HHVM needs to be looked after and they don’t last for ever. (Check below for his suggestion about buying.)
Portable Desktop model
For extended and continuous reading, laptop size.
Some models have 3 camera positions: downward for reading print on desk, back for self viewing, (using as mirror), and forward for distance viewing; magnification up to 60x but focus may not be crisp.
Traditional Desktop models
For continuous and extended reading these are large and heavy, for use on desktop or table (17 to 24 inch screen); magnification: up to 60 x from as little as 2 x; These have the best focus and usually the most features and durability.
Optelec clearview C (24 inch screen , there are other screen sizes ) This is the newest model, but there are lots of other good ones,and simple can be better than complex features, price $3,400approx.
Traditional Desktop model with Optical Character recognition (OCR)
Some models function as a regular desktop video magnifier but also have OCR, which captures the image of the text and reads it aloud. They are good for people who are not going to use a text to speech program on a regular computer.
Enhance Vision Merlin Elite HD, $3100 approx.
Bob says: Traditional desk top video magnifiers have a large screen with space under the camera for hand tasks, as well as reading. But you do need somewhere to put it. I had a client who had to put hers on the couch and sit on the floor to use it! Clients frequently find reading is 3 times faster than with a regular optical magnifier, generally with less effort and more fluency. A desktop video magnifier cannot be mislaid, but you cannot take it with you!
Before you buy, borrow or are given a video magnifier
Bob says: Have a low vision evaluation to find out what class of magnifier would be best, and whether you can handle the device successfully. Some catalogs have cheaper models, but it is good to buy through a company with a representative so you have someone to call if there is a problem. Also check the warranty especially for the hand held models, which are les durable than the desktop models.
How to find out more about video magnifiers
Bob says: for desk top and other high cost models, people want new products. Before you buy,try to attend a tech fair or conference for people with vision impairments, where the companies display many models in one place and have representatives there to talk to . Go to the first rep and ask lots of questions. Then go to the second rep and ask about the claims the first rep made for his product. Go back to the first rep and ask about the claims of the second and so on. You can also attend a support group for people with vision loss where some of the more complex details can be shared. It is worth calling your local Lions Club to find out whether they know of any presentations coming up.
Hannah says: In researching this blogpost some companies hide the price of their models. They want to hook you with all the dazzling features before you get to the sticker shock !
Where to get Loaner or inexpensive models
Hannah says: It is a good idea to have a loaner at first to find out if it is a wonderful tools for you, or if it mostly stays in the box!
If you are legally blind, ask your state agency for the blind or disabled to supply you with a low vision assessment and a video magnifier . If you are not, some of the more active Lions Clubs may have a program of recycling used ones or selling them cheaply. In Massachusetts, the Perkins Regional Library loans out video magnifiers. There are plenty of used ones sold on line. Some companies sell older models more cheaply, and agencies like the Carroll Center for the Blind sometimes give away older models.
Please post a comment to tell us how you like your video magnifier. Let the rest of us learn from your experience.