Wearable Technology Restores Sight to the Legally Blind

Some of the most compelling startup stories feature a founder who solves a personal problem, and that solution improves the lives of many other people who share that problem.

Conrad Lewis had a problem: his two sisters were both diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of macular degeneration that causes progressive loss of eyesight. Stargardt disease and a host of similar conditions leave sufferers vision-impaired, unable to see mere centimetres past their own noses.

Lewis decided to apply technological ingenuity and innovation to the problem. The result was Ottawa-based startup eSight Eyewear, developer of wearable tech that provides enhanced sight to the legally blind.

Calling to mind recent wearable technology like Google Glass and the Oculus Rift, the eSight specs place two LCDs in front of the wearer’s eyes. A camera on the front of the glasses shoots whatever the wearer sees, and sends the image through a small hip- or lap-mounted computer wired to the glasses. The image is then beamed back into the glasses in real time.  The computer features a number of controls that the wearer can tweak to enhance the image, including freeze frame, contrast, and the all-important zoom. The eSight glasses are built to accommodate the legally blind wearer’s often heavy-duty prescription eyewear, and can be easily flipped up when the wearer wants to see through his or her own eyes (or “low-tech” spectacles).

Introductory pricing has the glasses at $10,000. eSight President and CEO Kevin Rankin figures that for a bargain.

“How does one analyze the cost of sight?” he asks. Indeed, the alternatives for the legally blind come at a premium. “Training a seeing eye dog costs at least 4 times higher,” Rankin explains, “Surgical implants cost at least 10 to 12 times higher.”

Restoring sight to the legally blind is not a simple matter of handing a pair of eSight glasses to someone and calling it a day. Neuroplasticity and learned behaviours in the brain play a role in “rehabilitating” the wearer. Rankin relates an anecdote where a wearer’s thought process needed time to catch up to her newly-improved sight.

One early eSight wearer who was amazed at being able to actually see across a large room, was asked to read a brochure. Wearing eSight, she looked at the brochure for a few very long minutes before she just started reading—and crying. She explained that she could “see” the letters and then words right away but it took a couple of minutes to process what she was seeing, as she hadn’t read normally since she was eight years old.  The tears were tears of joy, realizing that she could now read bedtime stories to her young sons.

eSight has developed a step-by-step program to help wearers adjust to their newfound ability to see, including retraining for routine tasks such as distance viewing, reading, writing, hand-eye coordination and mobility.

In contrast to other options, the eSight solution is touted as being non-invasive, non-surgical, and totally mobile. When asked whether eSight would someday turn its attention to neural implants to restore sight to completely blind patients, Rankin replied it was “yet to be seen.”

Pun intended? We hope so.