SIGHT FOR POOR EYES

New glasses help the legally blind see

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - MICHAEL LIEDTKE

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Jeff Re­gan was born with un­der­de­vel­oped op­tic nerves and had spent most of his life in a blur. Then four years ago, he donned an un­wieldy head­set made by a Toronto com­pany called eSight.

Sud­denly, Re­gan could read a news­pa­per while eat­ing break­fast and make out the faces of his co­work­ers from across the room. He’s been able to at­tend plays and watch what’s hap­pen­ing on stage, without hav­ing to guess why peo­ple around him were laugh­ing.

“These glasses have made my life so much bet­ter,” said Re­gan, 48, an en­gi­neer who lives in Lon­don, Ont.

The head­sets from eSight trans­mit im­ages from a for­ward-fac­ing cam­era to small in­ter­nal screens — one for each eye — in a way that beams the video into the wearer’s pe­riph­eral vi­sion. That turns out to be all that some peo­ple with lim­ited vi­sion, even le­gal blind­ness, need to see things they never could be­fore. That’s be­cause many vis­ual im­pair­ments de­grade cen­tral vi­sion while leav­ing pe­riph­eral vi­sion largely in­tact.

Al­though eSight’s glasses won’t help peo­ple with to­tal blind­ness, they could still be a huge deal for the mil­lions of peo­ples whose vi­sion is so im­paired that it can’t be cor­rected with or­di­nary lenses.

But eSight still needs to clear a few mi­nor hur­dles.

Among them: prov­ing the glasses are safe and ef­fec­tive for the legally blind.

While eSight’s head­sets don’t re­quire the ap­proval of health reg­u­la­tors — they fall into the same lowrisk cat­e­gory as den­tal floss — there’s not yet firm ev­i­dence of their ben­e­fits. The com­pany is fund­ing clin­i­cal tri­als to pro­vide that proof.

The head­sets also carry an eye­pop­ping price tag. The lat­est ver­sion of the glasses, re­leased just last week, sells for about $10,000. While that’s $5,000 less than its pre­de­ces­sor, it’s still a lot for peo­ple who of­ten have trou­ble get­ting high-pay­ing jobs be­cause they can’t see.

In­sur­ers won’t cover the cost; they con­sider the glasses an “as­sis­tive” tech­nol­ogy sim­i­lar to hear­ing aids.

ESight CEO Brian Mech said the lat­est improvements might help in­sur­ers over­come their short-sighted view of his prod­uct. Mech ar­gues that it would be more cost-ef­fec­tive for in­sur­ers to pay for the head­sets, even in part, than to cover more ex­pen­sive sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures that may re­store some sight to the vis­ually im­paired.

The lat­est ver­sion of ESight’s tech­nol­ogy, built with in­vest­ments of $32 mil­lion over the past decade, is a gad­get that vaguely re­sem­bles the vi­sor worn by the blind “Star Trek” char­ac­ter Ge­ordi La Forge, played by LeVar Bur­ton.

The third-gen­er­a­tion model lets wear­ers mag­nify the video feed up to 24 times, com­pared to just 14 times in ear­lier mod­els. There’s a hand con­trol for ad­just­ing bright­ness and con­trast. The new glasses also come with a more pow­er­ful high-def­i­ni­tion cam­era.

ESight be­lieves that about 200 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide with vis­ual acu­ity of 20/70 to 20/1200 could be po­ten­tial can­di­dates for its glasses. That num­ber in­cludes peo­ple with a va­ri­ety of dis­abling eye con­di­tions such as mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, di­a­betic retinopa­thy, oc­u­lar al­binism, Star­gardt’s dis­ease or, like Re­gan, op­tic nerve hy­popla­sia.

So far, though, the com­pany has sold only about 1,000 head­sets, de­spite the tes­ti­mo­ni­als of wear­ers who’ve be­come true be­liev­ers.

Take, for in­stance, Yvonne Felix, an artist who now works as an ad­vo­cate for eSight af­ter see­ing the pre­vi­ously in­dis­tin­guish­able faces of her hus­band and two sons for the first time via its glasses.

Oth­ers, rang­ing from kids to se­nior cit­i­zens, have worn the gad­gets to golf, watch foot­ball or just per­form daily tasks such as read­ing nutri­tion la­bels.

ESight isn’t the only com­pany fo­cused on help­ing the legally blind. Other com­pa­nies work­ing on high­tech glasses and re­lated tools in­clude Aira, Or­cam, ThirdEye, NuEyes and Mi­crosoft.

But most of them are do­ing some­thing very dif­fer­ent.

While their ap­proaches also in­volve cam­eras at­tached to glasses, they don’t mag­nify live video. In­stead, they take still im­ages, an­a­lyze them with im­age recog­ni­tion soft­ware and then gen­er­ate an au­to­mated voice that de­scribes what the wearer is look­ing at — any­thing from a child to words writ­ten on a page.

Sa­muel Markowitz, a Univer­sity of Toronto pro­fes­sor of oph­thal­mol­ogy, says that eSight’s glasses are the most ver­sa­tile op­tion for the legally blind cur­rently avail­able, as they can im­prove vi­sion at near and far dis­tances, plus ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

Markowitz is one of the re­searchers from five uni­ver­si­ties and the Cen­ter for Retina and Mac­u­lar Dis­ease that re­cently com­pleted a clin­i­cal trial of eSight’s sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion glasses. Al­though the re­sults won’t be re­leased un­til later this year, Markowitz said the tri­als found lit­tle risk to the glasses. The big­gest haz­ard, he said, is the pos­si­bil­ity of trip­ping and fall­ing while walk­ing with the glasses cov­er­ing the eyes.

The de­vice “is meant to be used while in a sta­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, ei­ther sit­ting or stand­ing, for look­ing around at the en­vi­ron­ment,” Markowitz said.

ERIC RISBERG, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Yvonne Felix wears eSight elec­tronic glasses. She was di­ag­nosed with Star­gardt’s dis­ease af­ter be­ing hit by a car at the age of seven.

eSight’s elec­tronic glasses en­able the legally blind to see.

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