• Ford is using Cambridge University’s Vision and Hearing Impairment Simulator to design its vehicles to help people with age-related vision problems
  • Special software enables engineers to see instrument clusters through the eyes of someone with vision impairment
  • Globally, 285 million people have some form of visual impairment. Of these 65 per cent are over the age of 50
  • By 2030, nearly 25 per cent of people in Europe will be over 65, up from 17 per cent in 2007

Brentwood, Essex, 22 December, 2011 – Ford has joined forces with Cambridge University to gain a better understanding of visual impairment issues that come with an ageing society and to use digital tools to better design vehicles for those with vision problems.

The World Health Organisation reports that 285 million people worldwide suffer from some form of visual impairment. Of these, about 65 per cent are aged 50 and over. And with a rapidly ageing population, the number of visually impaired is expected to grow.

With age, the ability to see fine details deteriorates, as does the ability to see in the dark. This means many drivers can struggle to read the instrument cluster while driving, unless they have bifocal or varifocal glasses. Other eye conditions, such as glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), are also prevalent among those 50 and older.

“Visual impairment is a natural part of ageing and affects many millions of people around the world,” said Angelika Engel, ergonomics attribute specialist at Ford of Europe. “But because it is such a gradual process, it can often go unnoticed for many years. We tend to subconsciously look around the problem until it reaches a point where it is so severe that it can no longer be ignored. Even conditions like AMD and glaucoma can come on very slowly.”

Working with Cambridge University

To respond to this growing problem, Ford has joined forces with a team of experts from the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre. The team has developed a Vision Impairment Simulator to enable designers and engineers to gain a better understanding of the effects of a wide variety of visual impairments.

“It allows you to simulate visual impairments on any image. You load in an image, select a visual impairment and it lets you see the image as someone with that impairment would see it,” said Sam Waller, an inclusive design research associate at Cambridge, who developed the software. “You can then load in other designs and instantly compare the effects, or you can change the impairment and see how the design stands up to different problems.

“Even in the case of age-related macular degeneration, where the loss of central vision moves around with the eye, the software simulates this effect by allowing the user to move the “blind-spot” around to see its effect on different parts of the image,” Waller said.

Ford is using the software to study and optimise the design of its instrument displays, to ensure they can be safely and comfortably read by as many drivers as possible. The software also has been used to improve the design of mobile phones and for teaching inclusive design at several universities.

“For us, it is about promoting inclusive design, focusing on ability variation rather than disability, and designing to meet the needs of as many people as possible,” Waller said. “The software features a slider which enables you to instantly change the severity of the visual impairment, from very mild to very severe, so that companies can set a target for the level of visual impairment they will accommodate.”

Maximising Usability

Ford is committed to inclusive design and improving the health and wellbeing of its drivers. Since 1994, the company’s engineers have used a “Third Age Suit” to help them better understand difficulties faced by older drivers. The suit restricts mobility and lessens the sense of touch. It also includes goggles which simulate cataracts.

“The goggles are a very useful tool, but this software is a big leap forward because it lets us simulate so many different impairments and levels of severity,” Engel said. “For example, if we were to load in an image of a display and process it for red-green colour blindness, you might instantly see that some numbers and letters become a lot harder to read. We can then change the design accordingly.

“Certainly, some people have visual problems that prevent them from passing a driver’s test in their country. There are many people with vision problems that still can drive and we want to make it as safe and easy as possible for them as long as their sight is also being regularly checked by an optician,” Engel said. “Our work with Cambridge gives us a real understanding of the difficulties many people face and helps us design our products to better suit the needs of a larger percentage of our customers. At this early stage, the software is helping us identify any areas for improvement and come up with solutions. Our engineers will then be able to implement these solutions in future vehicles.”