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Technology In Eye Care: Part II – Tech On The Horizon

In the first post in this series we talked about what technology is currently available to help improve the quality of life for those struggling with low vision.

In this post, we’ll be taking a look at some of the technology on the horizon, technology that could soon become available to the public at large, that can continue to improve the quality of life for those with low vision.

Glasses For Your Phone?

If you wear corrective lenses, you might not need them when using your smart phone much longer. That’s because researchers at UC Berkeley are working on a corrective lens of sorts for your phone’s display.

Rather than a lens like in your glasses, the Berkeley researchers are using a novel approach to creating a sharp image for those with impaired vision. They are laying a plastic film covered with thousands of tiny pinholes –each measuring only 75 micrometers– sandwiched between two plastic plates over an electronic display, and then using innovative programming to control how each pixel emits light.

The combination of the new programming controlling the direction and intensity of the light from each pixel and the pinhole screen has allowed the researchers to create images and text that appear much sharper to those with impaired vision than ever before.

Despite their success in creating clear, sharp images, the technology is not yet really viable for the general public.

The overlay of the pinhole screen between plastic plates is thick and unwieldy. Likewise, the programming is still limited in that it can’t change the screen’s focus based on the position of the user’s head.

Work is still being on both of these technologies, however, and progress is being made. The researchers say that the prototype pinhole screen could be developed into something akin to a normal screen protector. Likewise, advances are being made in camera technology that can allow the software to use a phones “selfie” camera to track the user’s eyes and change the image to account for head position.

The technology is still very individual. Because it distorts the screen’s display to create an image that appears clear to somebody with a particular vision impairment, it would appear distorted to a user without impaired vision, or with a different prescription.

Eventually, however, this technology could make the use of electronic displays – televisions, computers, tablets, or smartphones – easier and more convenient for people with a variety of vision issues.

The Invisible Cane

enactive-torch

The Centers for Disease Control and prevention (the CDC) estimates that the number of Americans who either have low-vision or are blind will double by the year 2030.

For many, using a cane to help navigate can be uncomfortable. The obvious sign that they are ‘different’ can toy with the emotions or make them feel as if they are apart, particularly for children.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are working on a technology that might help those with low-vision or blindness in their day-to-day lives. They are working on creating an invisible cane.

Instead of a physical stick, this cane uses an invisible infra-red laser to sense the terrain in front of the user. It then lets them know what is ahead of them through a forearm band that works through hepatic feedback. That’s the same thing as when your smartphone buzzes when you are using the virtual keyboard.

It might seem that using a beam of invisible light and a band would make feeling obstructions in front of the user more difficult than physically touching them. However experiments have been done using early prototypes of the infra-red cane, a physical cane, and full sight. And surprisingly, the experiments have shown the IR cane to be as effective as a traditional cane at negotiating obstacles. Even more surprising was that the IR cane works almost as well as full sight.

The invisible cane is still in development though. As you can see in the picture above, the moment the prototype – called the “Enactive Torch” – looks more like a prop from the original Star Trek series than a minimally obtrusive replacement for the traditional cane. However, as with so many things, as research continues, it will be refined and ultimately shrink in size and increase in functionality.

The Enactive Torch isn’t ready for broad commercial release yet, but as it gets refined, it might not be long until the traditional white cane is replaced by an unobtrusive infra-red emitter and an easily concealed armband.

Smart Contact Lenses

Wearable smart technology is becoming more and more common. Cell phone companies are racing to create new and better smart watches to sync with smart phones to increase convenience and functionality. Google made headlines with the creation of the Google Glass, which has a head-up display and camera which sync with the owner’s phone.

Now tech giant Google is taking the idea of wearable technology a step further by partnering with the Alcon eyeware division at Novartis to create a smart contact lens.

smart_contacts

Unlike smart watches or Google Glass, the smart contact lens was conceived as a medical technology and intended from the start to help make lives better. The smart contacts are – currently – intended for use by diabetics. The contacts measure blood sugar directly from the wearer’s tears. The lenses have a small microchip, roughly the size of a speck of glitter, to do the measuring and a hair-thin antenna to sync with the wearer’s phone to keep them informed on their blood sugar level. There are also plans for lenses to potentially measure biomarkers related to several cancers, which would help oncologists keep track of cancer patients who are in remission. Smart lenses also present the possibility of being able to measure intra-occular pressure to help monitor glaucoma patients.

Smart lenses may also offer the possibility of dispensing medication directly into the eye, eliminating the need for eye droppers. By having the lens dispense the medicine, dosages could be carefully timed and measured to eliminate the user forgetting or using too much or too little. They could also delivers a small, constant trickle of medicine, which in some cases could be preferable to sudden –comparitively– large drops of medicine.

Further research is looking in to other lens applications, such as automatic focusing for those who only need reading glasses. Even more ambitious research is looking in to creating telescopic or night vision lenses to make super-human vision a reality.

In part III we will be looking at the future of how advances in technology will blend science with science fiction.