High-tech glasses help legally blind people see for first time

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Source: http://www.medicaldevicedaily.com/

By AMANDA PEDERSEN
Medical Device Daily Senior Staff Writer

TORONTO — Yvonne Felix, an artist and mother, can watch her two young boys play at a park, read restaurant menus and street signs, and work at a job that until recently she would have had to turn down due to low vision caused by her Stargardt’s Disease. She’s one of many people whose lives have been changed by a high-tech pair of glasses developed by a small Canadian company called eSight eyewear (Ottawa).

“That was one of the most amazing things, to have an opportunity and be able to say ‘yes’ to it and not have to say ‘no’ to it, again,” Felix says on a YouTube video in which she describes how her life has changed since she got a pair of the eSight glasses.

eSight was among the many stops on an international medical device media tour of Ontario that Medical Device Daily is participating in this week. The tour, organized by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation (MEDI), also includes journalists from Japan, China, the UK, Germany, France, and India.

Helping people with low vision see clearly is at the heart of eSight’s story. The company was founded by Conrad Lewis, a technology entrepreneur touched by the impact vision problems had on his wife and sisters. His wife has low vision due to retinal detachments and a hole in her macula and his two sisters are legally blind due to Stargardt’s Disease. Unhappy with the options available, Lewis assembled a team of electrical engineers to apply today’s technology to low vision. He approached the diseased eye as a “failed electrical transducer”, applying traditional engineering fixes to the problem. In collaboration with researchers and clinicians from low vision organizations, the company developed eyewear that is mobile, hands free and suitable for near, far and mid-range tasks.

“We’ve got a young guy in the office who is brilliant, he’s got a master’s degree, he was stocking shelves at a big box retailer [because of his vision problems] and is now wearing the glasses full-time everyday, working [at eSight] with clients around the world . . . the stories are remarkable,” Kevin Rankin, president/CEO of eSight, told MDD and other journalists on the tour.

The glasses have benefited low-vision people of all ages, including Emma-Rose Gibson, an 8-year-old diagnosed with optic nerve hypoplasia, who can now do all the things little girls enjoy doing without being limited by her eye condition.

“Emma-Rose, she’s a sweetheart, her parents were told when she was born that she would be blind to death, so to be able to see what she can do now is sort of beyond belief,” Rankin said. “There’s not too many dry eyes in the room when we go through some of these experiences with people.”

The glasses enable people with low vision and legal blindness to fully engage in all aspects of their life at home and at work from shopping to recognizing a friend in the crowd from a distance or to watch television, theatre and movies, things that sighted people often take for granted.

“We’re excited about this and we want to see tens of thousands of these stories around the world, that’s what drives us everyday,” Rankin said.

The eSight system consists of a headset, a special prescription lens frame, and a controller that allows the wearer to customize zoom, contrast, and color settings. The headset houses a small camera that sends a live video stream to the controller, which uses advanced algorithms and the wearer’s preferred settings to customizes the video, making it easier for people with low vision to see. The enhanced video signal is then transferred back to the headset and displayed on LED screens in front of the wearer’s eyes.

But the glasses are not cheap. Costing $9,750, many people who need the technology end up fund-raising in their communities to be able to pay for the glasses. The Gibsons, for example, held a bowl-a-thon to buy the eSight glasses for Emma-Rose. Felix designed a special necklace, which represents what her blind spot looks like to her without the glasses, and sold those necklaces to pay for eSight.

According to the company there are 187 million people worldwide with low vision that is not correctable with traditional glasses or contact lenses.

While the technology may benefit an even wider range of visual impairments, the “sweet spot”, eSight says, is people with between 20-60 and 20-400 vision.

“It’s actually exceeded our expectations for the people it has been able to help,” Rankin said.

The glasses themselves are designed to be lightweight at 180 grams, but the battery component is heavier.

“A lot of the innovation and patents relate to making it light and comfortable enough for people to wear it all day long,” Rankin said.

The glasses do stand out a bit from traditional glasses, looking almost like a par of dark safety goggles. “We wish it all looked like Ray Ban’s today,” Rankin said, adding that the technology will eventually get to that point, especially thanks to the popularity of wearable electronics for video games and other consumer products.

eSight has just started selling the glasses in North America earlier this month. “We’re small but we’re just starting to roll out,” Rankin said.

Amanda Pedersen, 912-660-2282;
amanda.pedersen@ahcmedia.com