Canadian high-tech goggles restore sight to legally blind
By Treena HeinGeneral engineering Innovation medical devices product development
Ottawa-based eSight Corporation's bionic eyeglasses allow those with 20/60 to 20/400 eyesight to read and recognized faces for the first time.
Necessity, as we all know, is the mother of invention. In the case of Conrad Lewis, it was the critical necessity of providing sight for his two sisters, who were legally blind due to Stargardt’s Disease. There was nothing that could be done medically, but Conrad believed he could develop an engineering solution that would restore their sight.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done, but he was sure he could prove them wrong,” explains Kevin Rankin, who is president and CEO of eSight Corporation, the Ottawa-based company Lewis founded. “He wanted to help his sisters and change the lives of millions around the world.”
Lewis started eSight in 2007, beginning his quest with a small team of researchers and engineering developers. Head-mounted displays for the visually impaired had already been created by that time, but they were too large, heavy and awkward to be practical. They also lacked the realtime image processing that would have made them truly effective.
The eSight team set to work to solve these issues, developing two generations of prototypes over the next few years. Test after test, solution after solution, they achieved a pre-production version in mid–2012 and fully launched the product this year. Many private and government agencies provided support along the way, including angel investors from Canada and the U.S., the NRC-IRAP Industrial Research Assistance Program, the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario’s Investing in Business Innovation Initiative and the Southern Ontario Fund for Investing in Innovation, Ontario Centres of Excellence and MARs Discovery District Investment Accelerator Fund.
eSight eyewear employs several integrated components. First, an advanced, high-resolution video camera captures what the wearer is looking at. Those video images are then relayed to a controller, where sophisticated software processes the images in realtime and projects them onto two LED screens in front of the wearer’s eyes. The technology is customized to provide vision as near to normal as a person’s condition allows, providing improved distance, near and intermediate range vision to those with macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, Stargardt’s Disease, ocular albinism and other conditions.
It includes the wearer’s prescription lenses and enables people with low vision to see in a number of ways. First, the eyewear can magnify an image up to 14 times. It also auto-focuses to enable the wearer to read at a normal distance and then look up and view something in the distance. There are also contrast settings and colour modes that can be adjusted to best suit how a person prefers to see. For example, he may prefer to read white on a black background versus the reverse. Regarding blind spots, Rankin says the improvement eSight provides depends on the individual. Some users have informed the company that their blind spot completely disappears, while in others it is significantly diminished.
“The effect this technology can have on the lives of people with vision loss is remarkable,” says John Rafferty, president and CEO of CNIB (formerly known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). “It’s an exciting device that can enable some people to recapture activities they haven’t experienced in decades, like watching their kids play soccer or reading the Sunday morning newspaper.”
Designing the Total Package
Creating a device that can deliver realtime high-quality processed video images meant creating computing infrastructure capable of achieving no perceptible lag. The software system developed by the eSight team ended up including several control and image processing sub-systems, with low-latency application software that allows a captured image to be processed and enhanced on a frame-by-frame basis before being served up to the user on the near-to-eye displays. At the same time, the team needed the right hardware.
“We looked at electronic components available on the market, but as is often the norm in developing breakthrough technology, their physical size and performance requirements just didn’t meet the needs of the end-customer,” notes Director of Development Frank Jones. “In particular, no off-the-shelf camera system met our requirements, and so appropriate components for image capture and lens control needed to be designed and developed.” In addition, near-to-eye display systems were – and still are – not yet mass-market, so the team put significant effort into component customization, under strict weight and volume constraints.
In integrating the entire device, the realtime operating system needed to be ported to these specialized hardware components. A multi-threaded application environment was developed to handle the realtime image capture and display system that would also allow users to control features such as zoom.
Among the mechanical challenges was achieving high-precision alignment of the displays with the user’s eyes. “We really needed innovative approaches to position the displays correctly for individual users,” Jones says, “and to allow the device to pivot between a heads-up mode and an immersive mode while integrating a user’s unique prescription lenses.”
“Everything was difficult, and there were many nights when we went home wondering if the naysayers weren’t right,” Jones admits. “But we had a highly motivated team that would not give up.” In addition to their own innovative ideas, staff was also able to consult with the company’s advisory board, which includes experts such as Dr. Graham Strong (low vision rehabilitation optometrist and director of the Centre for Sight Enhancement at the University of Waterloo School of Optometry) and Dr. Rejean Munger (senior scientist at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, and an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine).
Jones says overall integration and sticking to the product development schedule were likely the biggest challenges in getting the product to market. “With each design element presenting unique and difficult issues, it would have been very easy for the product development schedule to go off the rails,” he notes. “But with careful project management and control, we were able to engage excellent designers, developers and subcontractors to deliver our current production system on time and on budget.”
Currently, the eSight team is working to expand the capabilities of its eyewear. In its current form, the device already addresses a large range of vision problems, but software enhancements will extend that even further. There are other technologies in the works as well, obviously under wraps for now.
Speaking on behalf of the entire company, Rankin says it feels “amazing” to be finally helping people keep their independence or gain more independence than they’ve ever had. “When we see a child who is legally blind, reading and giggling, and the tears in her parents’ eyes, it is nothing short of awesome,” he says. “Our little company in Kanata, Ontario, with less than 20 people, developed a world class innovation that enables people who are legally blind, to actually see. We are very fortunate to be able to do such meaningful work.”