‘Innovation and The Eye’ Moves From Science Fiction to Science Fact

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The technology session titled Innovation and the Eye offered Summit attendees a fascinating look at how four new and very different technologies are extending the capabilities of the human visual system and expanding our concept of eyecare. Following an introduction by Andrew Karp, group editor, lenses and technology for Jobson’s Retail Optical Group, each of the four speakers discussed how their company’s products and systems—visual acuity and cataract testing using mobile phone apps, contact lens-enabled, high definition video eyewear, eye scanning, and an artificial retina—can benefit consumers and potentially, the optical industry.

Ramesh Raskar, co-founder of EyeNetra and associate professor at MIT Media Lab, began the session by introducing NETRA (Near Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment), a low-cost mobile system he helped develop that uses a cell phone and simple hardware attachment to perform an accurate visual acuity test. Speaking about the potential market for NETRA, particularly in the developing world, Raskar noted that there are “more than 4 billion people walking around with a mobile, scientific instrument in their pockets.”

Raskar told Summit attendees that NETRA represents, “not just a diagnostic system for refraction but a new ecosystem. Instead of shining a light into the eye, we’re exploiting high resolution LCDs that can measure refraction in a few seconds. Our system is completely digital. There are no moving parts, no electricity. It takes measurements comparable to other instruments.”

 
 Jobson’s Andrew Karp (second from left) with Innovation and The Eye panel speakers (l to r) Ramesh Raskar, Barbara Barclay, Steve Willey ad Jim Little.
Raskar said the technology, which has been commercialized by EyeNetra, has the ability to disrupt the eyeglass industry, and noted its potential in the developed world. “We’re not part of that industry, though, so we have to close that loop,” he noted. He also spoke about CATRA, a low-cost, mobile system to detect cataracts that Raskar and his colleagues at MIT Media Lab developed, saying, “It’s like a weather map. We can give you a map of the cloudiness in your eye.”

Steve Willey, co-founder, CEO and director of Innovega, spoke about the potential applications for contact lens-enabled HD/3D Video Eyewear, which his company is developing. The many uses he cited included consumer entertainment, navigation, social media, augmented reality, defense and low vision. Although people currently use mobile devices for these purposes, Willey noted their shortcomings.

“Mobile devices are limited to a three- to four-inch screen,” he said. “Our eyewear-based displays, using our patented iOptik contact lens system coupled with our stylish, video eyewear gives the wearer an immersive viewing experience and anytime, everywhere media access. The iOptik contact lens features a tiny ‘lenslet’ for viewing the display. It’s the secret sauce that we’ll provide to eyewear and contact lens OEMs.”

 
 EyeNetra co-founder Ramesh Raskar demonstrating the EyeNetra device for the audience.
Willey said he believes video eyewear is a natural bridge from the optical industry to the consumer electronics industry.

The third speaker was Barbara Barclay, general manager, Tobii North America. Speaking about Tobii’s proprietary eye tracking technology and the data that it can provide, Barclay said, “The eyes are the mirror of the mind.” Citing the widespread use of eye tracking and gaze recognition technology, Barclay predicted, “In two years, eye tracking technology will be in every computer. It will change the way we interact with everything, including health care.”

She said most e-commerce sites use eye tracking in their design because it reveals whether the viewer did not see certain portions of the site, or whether they saw and ignored it. Retailers are also benefitting from eye tracking, she said. “Eye tracking collects eye data points when people are looking around a store. It can quantify the amount of time you’ve looked at something so you can see how people are shopping. “Our eyes reveal when we are thinking and reading,” Barclay noted. “They reveal the impact of a store or site design.”

 
 The audience was fascinated with the products and systems outlined during the panel.
Jim Little, vice president of R&D, Second Sight, described the company’s development of the Argus II Retinal Prothesis System, which restores vision for people blinded by outer retinal degenerations. He said about 40 patients throughout the world have had the implant, and most have reported positive results. Little played videos that showed some of these patients navigating down a street by walking on painted lines.

“We have been able to restore some sight to people. It’s not beautiful vision, but it’s a place to start,” he remarked. “Most patients get some benefit. We still have to improve the resolution of the image. It’s like in 1985, when the first cochlear implants came on the market. People said it was just an aid to lip reading. But now, they’ve improved the implants to the point where patients can distinguish notes on a piano.”

akarp@jobson.com