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The New Vision of Artificial Sight Technology

Millions of people in North America have vision (restrictions) glasses can't correct but that electronic devices might help. Vision aids that use electronics and software to enhance images have been cumbersome in the past, but they are getting easier to wear and more powerful.

An Ottawa start-up called eSight is one of the companies bringing computer-assisted vision technology to market. It hopes to complete a prototype this summer of a vision aid that looks like a pair of stylish sunglasses, with the addition of an electronic device that clips to your belt.

The glasses have a built-in miniature camera and image processing software running on the belt-mounted unit that will manipulate the camera's image in different ways to help people with various vision impairments see better. For instance, the software can enhance contrast, make the edges of objects more visible and even zoom in on a specific part of the field of vision. This helps patients with conditions like diabetic retinopathy that make vision blurry.

ESight expects a functional prototype of its vision aid to be ready this summer. (eSight) Ordinary optical lenses can enlarge an image and improve its contrast to a point, but that's the limit of the improvements they can offer, says the company's president, Rob Hilkes. With software, "we can quite dramatically play with brightness and contrast, so that the image that you see is quite different from what you would see with an optical lens," he says.

The eSight system can also perform special tricks aimed at solving other (sight limitations). For instance, advanced macular degeneration creates a blind spot right in the middle of the patient's field of vision. It's as if a cloud was hovering right in front of you, blocking your view of whatever you look at directly. People with this condition often learn to compensate by looking to one side of whatever they actually want to look at, so the object is outside the blind spot.

ESight is working on software--it won't be in this summer's prototype but should be in the final commercial product, Hilkes says--that maps the image captured by its camera to fit around the blind spot, so the words on a printed page would appear to curve around a central hole in the person's field of view.

Hilkes says eSight, which has backing from the government-run Ontario Centres of Excellence program, has already built a "proof of concept" of its vision aid. The bulky early version, built last year, "makes you look more like Darth Vader," he says, noting the prototype coming later this year will look more or less like regular sunglasses. The belt-mounted control box for the prototype will also be a bit bulkier than the final version, he says.

Hilkes says the company hopes to offer a "commercial prototype" in limited quantities by early next year and mass produce it by late 2010. Initially, he expects the cost to be in the $3,000 range.

He is also eyeing a large market of potential customers. Across North America, there are about 1,000 specialists working in around 500 clinics, whose primary practice is helping people with low vision, Hilkes says. "It's through those facilities that we believe the majority of our sales will occur," he says.

Most patients will have to pay for the devices themselves, though Hilkes is hopeful insurance plans and government programs may cover them in the future.

Other E-Vision Aids: Hilkes says the eSight unit is the first system of its kind--no existing device does quite the same things in as compact a package. One that comes close, though, is the SightMate from Vuzix Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., Vuzix' SightMate LV920 magnifies images up to 10 times. It also detects edges between objects and makes them clearer, it can freeze images, and its software can help compensate for colour blindness.

The current version of the SightMate, just introduced and available direct from the company at www.vuzix.com for $1,999 US, is a black visor that fits over the wearer's eyes, which has a camera in the middle. Gary Van Camp, vice-president of medical products for the company, says the next version will look more like designer sunglasses, with tiny cameras mounted in the frames at either side.

Vuzix also offers handheld add-ons for magnifying print, which can be used with the SightMate or an ordinary television set as the display.

“The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone.”--Dr. Rejean Munger, chief scientist for eSight

A veteran among head-mounted electronic magnifiers is the Jordy, from Enhanced Vision Inc. of Huntington Beach, Calif.

The Jordy can magnify objects up to 30 times, far more than is possible with a traditional magnifying glass, and provides a wider field of vision than any optical magnifier, says Michelle Williams, Enhanced Vision's director of sales and marketing. It can be strapped on the head or fitted into a desktop mount that increases the magnification and provides added light. But the head-mounted portion is noticeably bulkier than a pair of glasses, and it projects three or four centimetres out from the face.

Williams says the technology exists today to shrink the unit into something that looks like a pair of sunglasses, but the cost would be too high for most of the market. She predicts a glasses-like version within about five years. The current Jordy sells for $2,795 US.

Dr. Rejean Munger is chief scientist for eSight and a senior scientist at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute at the Ottawa Hospital. He says making electronic vision aids lighter and less obtrusive will mean more people will wear them and for longer periods.

"A lot of these people don't want to appear like they're wearing a space helmet when they're in public," he says, adding many find the bulkier units too heavy to wear for more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time.

Devices like these can't help everyone with vision (restrictions), Dr. Munger warns--they will do nothing for people who are entirely blind, and those with limited vision shouldn't expect to start driving or playing soccer. But, he says, "The number of people who could be helped by this is probably in the millions in North America alone."

Reprinted from CBC News, August 13, 2009.

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