When video magnifiers (then called CCTVs) were put on the market as a means for those with visual impairments to access print in the early 1970s, they were large, heavy, and awkward to use. One of the earliest models had a system whereby the camera could be moved to focus on various parts of the page as the user progressed down the page. Later units had a separate XY table from the monitor, so the user had to be seated in such a way that their head and torso were turned in a separate direction from where their hands were manipulating the printed page. It took practice to become proficient in the use of both of these machines and many individuals could not make it work effectively for them.
There have been a lot of advancements since then. Video magnifiers are available in a variety of sizes, styles, and with many more built-in options than when they were first introduced 50 years ago.
On the one hand, the number of options available helps our students pick a model that best fits their unique needs. However, the downside is that there are rarely opportunities to compare models and sizes with a student, particularly from different companies. Choosing a unit without the ability to compare various models can be quite challenging. It is especially difficult and frustrating when the student and their IEP team do not have an opportunity to try a device in the school and/or home environment prior to making a purchase.
In this article, we will explore various types of video magnifiers, pros and cons of each, and ways of comparing models for those attempting to make decisions about the type of video magnifier to purchase or borrow.
As video magnification has evolved, professionals have begun dividing them into different “classifications” based on their features. There is not any officially recognized classification system that is universally accepted, at least that this author is aware of, so we will use three different groupings: Portable, Portable/Foldable, and Desktop.
Portable video magnifiers can range from a five-inch screen to a ten-inch screen (measured diagonally). These video magnifiers are small enough to fit in a backpack or purse and often come with their own carrying case. The smaller of these devices have been referred to as “electronic pocket magnifiers”, but as the screen sizes increased, that name was not as relevant so it is not used often currently. Most potable video magnifiers can also be connected via HDMI to a larger screen such as a television or computer monitor.
Portable/foldable video magnifiers are devices that can be folded up for easy transport, but unfolded into a device that can be used on a student’s desk. The screens tend to run from 12 to 17 inches (measured diagonally). This is significantly larger than the portable video magnifiers described above. Like the portable video magnifiers, these units can also be connected via HDMI to a larger monitor if needed.
Tablet video magnifiers utilize an Android or Windows tablet along with proprietary software that works with an external wireless camera for distance viewing. They generally come with an adjustable and foldable stand that allows the tablet to be well positioned for the student.
Probably the most familiar type of video magnifier is the standard desktop unit. These have become lighter and more compact over the years, and though they are not as portable as other devices, they still are very useful to many students and adults.
Aside from portability and screen size, other features of video magnifiers should also be considered when choosing a device. Below are a few examples, though there are a variety of other options as well.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is the process of scanning a page and recognizing text. This text can then be manipulated by the video magnifier. For example, extracted text can be placed in a non-cluttered environment and fit to the screen so the student does not need to interact with the printed page at all. Text can also be read aloud by a synthesized voice and while the voice is reading, text can be highlighted so that the user can follow along.
Talking menus have become increasingly popular options on video magnifiers. This helps students with very low vision or students who need text read aloud to them. Often these talking menus can be turned on or off in the device settings.
Many video magnifiers have the capability of freezing an image so the user can view it without having to manipulate the physical page. Some of these devices also have the capability of saving images so the user can go back to them later. Saved images can often also be saved on removable storage so that they can be viewed on other devices or images captured on other devices can be imported to the video magnifier as well so they can be enlarged.
Touch screen video magnifiers have become more common, though they are still not found on the majority of devices. Touch screens allow for interactive menus and the ability to “pinch to zoom” so the user can increase or decrease magnification quickly.
As previously noted, portable video magnifiers are less likely to come with distance magnification capabilities, but there are some units that do have these options. Foldable, desktop, and tablet video magnifiers tend to have distance cameras mounted on them or included as a separate accessory.
When looking at distance magnification options, it is important to consider the range of the camera and how it can be moved/manipulated to capture content in various locations in the environment. Cameras that only can point straight ahead of the student are useful for accessing whiteboards or objects at the front of the classroom, but they do not allow the student to look around the classroom at other items such as Word Walls, bulletin boards with important information, or monitors that may be mounted in other locations in the classroom.
As noted previously, comparing models can be difficult since these sorts of devices are not available at a local retail store. There are, however, a few options that allow a user to view various models of video magnifier.
When comparing units to purchase for a student, many individuals contact a vendor such as Vispero, Optelec, Humanware, etc and ask them to bring a few different models to choose from. Because this often means a sale, many vendors will arrange to meet with the teacher and student to show their merchandise. Some vendors are authorized to carry devices from more than one manufacturer, though this is not always the case.
There are obvious pros and cons to working with a vendor:
Some statewide institutions, such as the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCBVI) offer technology consultations to assist TVIs with choosing an appropriate video magnifier based on the unique needs of the student. Once those needs have been identified, they have statewide loan programs, which offers Wisconsin K-12 students the opportunity to borrow a piece of equipment for three to four months to determine whether it will meet the needs of the student in their educational environment. WCBVI has a wide variety of options from different manufacturers such as Humanware, Vispero, and HIMS that students may experiment with.
Check with your state’s Educational Services Center or Outreach program. They may have a similar opportunity available in your area. Also, some non-profit organizations or service agencies may offer an evaluation process.
Arguably the most difficult part of choosing a video magnifier can be where or how to start. Here are some options to consider when choosing a video magnifier:
When performing an assessment on a student to determine what modifications will be most successful, it is generally best to start with the most low tech and low cost solutions. Not only are these solutions more likely to be successful, but many individuals with low vision, especially children and young adults, prefer not to use options and methods that make them feel as though they “stick out”. Embarrassment and discomfort may cause these individuals to choose not to implement any modifications at all, which will ultimately do more harm than good.
Consider the types of tasks the student will be using the device for. If they will be using it mainly to read maps and some smaller print, perhaps a portable unit will be enough to perform spot magnification and read short selections of text. If the goal is for the student to use the device to perform OCR and complete worksheets or other tasks, it is easy to eliminate some of the devices that do not have OCR right away and focus on the ones that do.
As a general rule, the solution that requires the least modification to the student’s routine and to the educational environment while still allowing the student or client to comfortably access the necessary materials is the best fit for them.
Presley, I., & D’Andrea, F. M. (2009). Assistive technology for students who are blind or visually impaired: A guide to assessment. New York, NY: AFB Press.
The Evolution of Video Magnification Technology Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, Nov-Dec 1996
Choose the Right Electronic Magnifier, Part 1: Identify Your Priorities (AFB AccessWorld, June 2016)
Choosing the Right Electronic Magnifier, Part 2: Larger Magnifier Systems, Specs, and Features (AFB AccessWorld August 2016)
Choose the Right Electronic Magnifier, Part 3: Handheld Magnifiers (AFB AccessWorld September 2016)
Choosing the Appropriate Video Magnifier (Perkins Paths to Technology)
Editor’s note: This article is authored by Amy Snow, Assistive Technology Specialist for Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCBVI).