Have Vision Loss? "One to Beam Up!"
I am a big Star Trek fan, I’ll admit it. 'Star Trek: Next Generation' is one of my favorites. If you are not familiar with the series, Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge was born blind but wore a visor that enabled him to detect electromagnetic waves in the range from heat to high-frequency ultraviolet light which of course is more than we mere humans can detect. (For ST fans, did you know that the visor for the show was modeled after the plastic headbands with teeth that some of us wore as girls in the 1960s-70s? 🙂)
Science fiction vs. reality
Is science fiction coming true for the visually impaired?
Let's explore that. My purpose here is not to turn you into a Trekker or a techie. With all the new technology coming out, I thought you might appreciate definitions of terms being used to describe the latest smart glasses and goggles for those with low vision.
What is reality?
We could sit around drinking coffee and talk about the ‘deep’ question: What IS reality? For now, we’ll just say that reality is whatever we can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. With low vision, reality may include having blurriness, blind spots, and wavy lines in central vision which is what can happen with macular degeneration.
You may find some of these terms used interchangeably.
What is virtual reality (VR)?
Virtual reality takes reality and ‘recreates’ it. For instance, VR low vision devices often take what goes into the eye and move it to an area that is healthy. These devices can use areas of remaining healthy central vision or peripheral vision. They also can magnify what the wearer is seeing and change the color for better contrast. Some can interpret your reality in terms of telling the wearer audibly what something is: what the words are on a printed page or sign (text-to-speech), what the color is of what the wearer is looking at, and what product they are looking at based on the UPC code.
Virtual reality for low vision
There are many of these devices already available. If you are interested, I have an article ‘Headworn Low Vision Glasses and Goggles.” You can read about IrisVision, OrCam, eSight, NuEyes, SightPlus, Jordy (I think the name was inspired by the Star Trek character), Cyber Eyez, SeeBOOST and Acesight. I am missing some because it’s hard for me to keep up with all the new ones!
What is augmented reality (AR)?
The word ‘augment' means to add something. In the case of this technology, something will be superimposed on what you are looking at. Back to Star Trek and other sci-fi TV shows and movies: Have you seen characters use what looks like computer screens in midair? These displays are usually very colorful, and the character’s hands move quickly over the controls. Very impressive!
Augmented reality for low vision
In the case of AR for low vision, one area of development is helping people navigate their environment. One device does that by scanning objects in your reality, identifying them, telling you audibly what they are (eg, chair, desk), and how far you are from them. They can help people with depth perception problems as in macular degeneration.
If you are interested in learning more, you can go to the work of Dr. Markus Meister at Caltech. There's a video on the webpage demonstrating an AR Low Vision device.
Mixed or mediated reality (MR) and computer-mediated reality (CMR)
You mean there are more? Yes! The terms 'mixed reality' and 'computer-mediated reality' are often used interchangeably and are sometimes just called AR. Adding the word 'computer' doesn't give us any information, because all of these AR and VR devices use a computer of some sort. Basically, mixed reality (MR) and computer-mediated reality (CMR) take VR and AR and combine them with computer-generated images that are often 3D (3 dimensional). What makes this a step up from just AR is that the wearer can interact with these images and with the computer that generated them to change how they work. This technology is being used for medicine and other fields currently. Now it's being integrated into smart glasses/goggles for those with low vision.
One of the devices in development for those with low vision is from Ocutrx Vision Technologies. It’s called Oculenz and is often referred to as AR or CMR. It can do many of the things the other VR, AR, or MR devices can do which includes magnify, identify objects, and help with navigation.1 Where it varies from typical VR or AR is that the device actually tests the condition of the wearer's eye, can contact the eye specialist if there is a problem, and can adjust the device settings of the device to accommodate vision changes! Personally, this is a big “Wow!” moment! One of the ophthalmologists involved in the development says, “The benefit to the patient can’t even be measured yet!”
A small pilot study showed that Oculenz gave wearers with severe AMD improvements in vision by moving images from a diseased area to a healthy area. The average improvement of visual acuity was an improvement from 20/200 to 20/63, there was better facial recognition, improved reading speed, and some people were able to read a smaller 12 point font.2
If you are interested, you can go to YouTube and search for ‘oculenz.’ They also have a website, but it's hard to read because they are using light-colored text on a white background. I sent them a friendly note about how difficult that is to read. 🙂 We'll see if I get a reply.
Ready for this: VR contact lenses! I'm out of space here, but if you really want to look into this, search for 'ar vr contacts' or 'mojo vision.'
When and how much?
As I said above, there are quite a few VR low vision devices available, but they are rather expensive (Check out my page above for current prices.). That's because there are very specialized devices with supply-and-demand being the issue. As more people want to use them, hopefully, the prices will come down.
Regarding Oculenz, they are taking pre-orders and hope to start shipping by summer. Here's where it gets interesting: as I said above, the Oculenz monitors vision and can report any changes to the retinal specialist. Since current monitoring devices for AMD are covered by insurance, the company is saying that Oculenz may be covered fully or partially by insurance. If that becomes the case, they will certainly dominate the market of other devices that are not covered by insurance. Stay tuned - I'll keep you posted!
So, science fiction or science fact?
It certainly appears to me that science fiction is becoming science fact for those with a visual impairment. This gives HOPE to those whose vision is damaged that they can go back to doing more than they had been able to do.
What's next? I desperately need a vacation but don't travel well. I'm hoping that someday someone will say to me, "One to beam down to a beach in Hawaii!" 🙂
Do you feel that you've maintained independence with macular degeneration?