The $10 Invention that Changed My Life
The Challenges of Magnification
Magnifiers are some of the most essential tools for VI folks. There are several different designs suited for a variety of uses, but one of the main challenges of designing a useful magnification device is positioning. It has to be both comfortable and simultaneously out of the way enough to be useful. One solution to the problem of magnifiers is to use cameras and a monitor to make a device called a CCTV. These are often desk-mounted or sometimes the size of a small tablet. They have a camera either mounted to an XY table or free-floating on an adjustable angle arm with several settings to adjust zoom, color, contrast, and other image properties. Many VI folks use these devices for reading, writing, and other applications. While these devices are a great idea, the companies that produce them charge exorbitant amounts, often upwards of $500, which is far outside the budgets of countless students, school districts, and VI individuals around the world. Many of these devices are also quite old, clunky, and in many cases are redundant when you can do so much with a modern smartphone and a computer.
Great limiting factors
I've felt that my poor eye-sight has kept me from doing many interesting things. One day when I was working at Lockheed Martin, someone was hosting a "Lunch and Learn" Arduino workshop to offer everyone a chance to learn a little bit about electronics and micro-controllers. While you might expect this to be something I'd find awesome, this was actually one of the worst days of my time working there. The whole time, we were taught to work with little circuits and breadboards, which I found as fascinating as it was inaccessible. The components were just too tiny and I couldn't muster the precision needed to work with them. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was progressing much faster than I was, I couldn't zoom on the MacBook to write the code, and the instructor didn't really know how to help. The whole time, I wanted nothing more than to scuttle back to my cubicle with my keyboard and code, try not to cry myself through the last few hours of the day, and give up electronics forever.
I kept this nasty experience in the back of my head and it cropped up any time I wanted to try anything electronics-related. One day, however, I was messing with one of those zooming light-up makeup mirrors. I was wanting to paint my nails for the first time, but once again, I encountered the same conundrum of working with small, precise movements that wouldn't easily allow me to get in close. I could use my phone or a magnifier, like I've done in the past when building PCs, but just like with electronics, I need both hands for the process, leaving no way to hold a device, and I couldn't get in super close because I needed light, which my head would bock, and I also didn't want to get the paint on things.
I frequently use my phone's camera for a whole manner of things unrelated to photography. Often at restaurants to read menus close up and far away. One day I stumbled across this neat app that would allow a computer to use the camera of the device as an external webcam. This gave me a great idea. I decided to set up the phone with this feature, and now I had the device's camera feed up on a big monitor with all the zooming and image manipulation power of a computer. This was great fun to play around with, but for it to be useful, I needed a way to mount it. I found a crappy old IKEA lamp with a flat bar at the top and fastened the phone with some velcro ties. And KABOOM! I had the working equivalent of a CCTV device with the flexibility of a full computer, customizability to my heart's content, and all on a shoestring budget.
This little prototype worked phenomenally well despite some major flaws. I was able to paint my nails for the first time, and I even got out the kit they let me keep from that terrible Lunch and Learn and actually started putting it together! Eventually, I decided to get more serious and pulled the trigger on getting a soldering iron. The premise is that you look at the large screen while the camera focuses on your hands and the working area.
Honing the craft
Looking to innovate further, I figured an actual, proper phone stand would be far less finicky, however, and while searching Amazon one night, I discovered a device called a Goose Neck clamp. It had a phone attachment at the top, a snake-like, malleable metal tendril that could hold the device at any angle or position, and a sturdy C-Clamp that held it firmly to a work surface. This device was perfect for what I wanted to do.
I tried several apps, and the one I decided worked the best was DroidCam. The app was free (though I eventually upgraded to the $3 premium version), and the stand was about $12. For anyone with a phone and computer, this is an absolutely unbeatable advancement, and a must-try for VI folks. With this, I can read and write documents, work on electronics projects, solder, paint my nails, ice cookies, build computers, and likely countless other things I would have been too nervous to attempt or forced to struggle through. Their high price and failure to innovate has kept other, more adaptable solutions out of the hands of underserved communities of VI folks, and just plain can't compete with this homebrew method. I am astonished I had not had this idea sooner.
As far as ways to improve, I would recommend a medium or large monitor, (though just a laptop screen can be perfectly serviceable) with a VESA monitor stand to free up desk space for working. The DroidCam app also allows you to use the video feed as a webcam so you can use it in something like OBS and apply composition filters to change colors or add visual effects. You might need to light your work surface. You can either do this with the phone's flashlight, but I recommend an adjustable desk lamp for better positioning and thermals (the phone can get quite hot with the camera and flashlight running for long periods of time.) I also want to work on some ways to control the zoom level and mouse with alternative, hands-free methods like voice control, pedals, or even something crazy like a capacitive, tongue-controlled trackpad.
A How-to Guide
Choosing an App
For anyone wanting to try, here is a simple guide on how you can replicate this setup. First, you'll need a smartphone (iOS or Android) with the app DroidCam, or something with similar function. For Mac users, there is a way to get it working, but it's a bit more advanced, as mentioned on the DroidCam FAQ Instead, you might want to opt for similar apps such as IriunCam or EpocCam, both of which support iOS or Android and Mac or Windows (Uriun also supports Linux).
Once your chosen app is installed, you'll need to install the companion desktop client to connect it to. The app will likely give instructions on where to go for this. For DroidCam, go here. Once your desktop client is installed, you'll be prompted to either connect the device via USB or WiFi. DroidCam and some others can be used both wired and wirelessly, but I recommend a USB connection, which is actually more difficult to set up, but it will have less latency, better picture quality, and also keeps your phone charging (or at least discharging slower). If you are on Android, you will also need to enable USB Debugging and install the Google USB Driver on your computer, which I will not go into here, but this guide should help you get rolling. If you do opt for a wireless connection, the app likely has the device's IP address and port. Make sure your computer and phone are on the same network (ethernet and wireless are fine) and type in the IP and port listed on your phone. If everything works correctly, your camera phone's camera should be broadcasting to your computer's screen!
Setting up your environment
Now it's time to find a suitable mount for your camera. (If you're cool like me,) You can Jerry-rig something up as I showed with the lamp and velcro ties, maybe a coathanger, or some tape and a shelf. But if you want something more permanent and stable, I recommend getting some kind of phone stand. There are thousands of options on the market, but I've found the gooseneck I showed in the above picture to work best, but really all you need is something that will elevate the camera above your work surface and angle it down. Operation of the gooseneck should be rather straightforward. You just need to lower the clamp to thicker than your desk, then tighten it to hold it in place. Then, open the mouth, slip your phone in, and bend it to a good position. If your tabletop is thicker than 3 inches, you might have trouble clamping to it (I actually broke mine doing this), so try clamping to something thinner and heavy like a hard-cover book sitting slightly off the table. For positioning the phone, this is something you'll have to play with, but I find about a foot and a half above the work surface is a good amount of verticle space for my hands and the things I'm working on, as well as close enough to get decent field-of-view and picture quality. You will need to adjust and experiment to find a setup that works well for you. If your setup is still too dark, you can add a lamp. It works best if it sits behind and angled down towards the work surface so your hands and the camera don't create shadows. You can also opt to use your phone's flashlight with DroidCam, but this will drain the battery more quickly and generate a lot of heat which is not great for the phone long-term.
Getting the perfect picture
The DroidCam desktop client (and likely most others) give you a myriad of tools to use the camera. I usually turn off autofocus and adjust things like brightness, ISO, and white-balance until things just look right. I would also recommend turning your phone's brightness all the way down for better thermals and performance. You can also raise the resolution if needed (though you might need the paid version of your app). If you're getting choppy video, consider turning the picture quality down if possible or switching to a wired connection. I'm able to get a solid 30 FPS at 1080p of the time with great visual clarity. Once you've got a decent picture, you're free to use any tools you'd like on the computer to help you see better. Just like everywhere else, I use the fullscreen Windows Magnifier (with some custom mouse macros for easier control) to zoom in on my feed when I need to see fine detail or read something small. Another neat feature of the app is that you can use the video feed as a webcam on any program that accepts a video feed. The desktop client probably has a fullscreen mode, but sometimes I like to open the video feed in the windows camera app or OBS. OBS is a very popular piece of software used by content creators and streamers, but I find it's quite useful for adding additional processing effects like filters or changing contrast and color settings.
Links to mentioned items
- DroidCam Google Play
- DroidCam iOS
- Set Up DroidCam with USB
- Gooseneck phone Stand
- (Optional) IKEA Adjustable Work Lamp
Most importantly, this technology has the potential to revolutionize access to assistive technology. Many kids in underserved schools don't have access to these technologies or experts prepared to help them learn to use them. This solution is cheap, portable, and highly customizable unlike many of offerings of I will continue to explore the possibilities of this simple innovation and update the article with new findings. I will also be sharing it with other members of the blind community to get feedback and improve my design.