VR For Low Vision: Interview With Iris Vision CEO

VR For Low Vision: Interview With Iris Vision CEO
April 2, 2018

IrisVision, a medtech company based in California, have developed a low-cost visual aid system for people with low vision. The system currently harnesses the power of a Samsung Galaxy smartphone mounted in a Samsung Gear VR headset. The phone captures the scene using the smartphone’s camera, then remaps the scene to enhance its visibility for those with low vision. This scene enhancement is performed using multiple algorithms developed for various eye conditions.

The system allows for a wide field of view and users can vary the color contrast and brightness of the image. One function allows users to telescopically zoom in on a specific feature in a scene, while keeping the overall scene in context. Users can also dynamically adjust the zoomed area and magnification. The system includes various reading modes, both high contrast black letters on white or inverse, making text more readable.


The company aimed to develop a system that is much more affordable and accessible than many of the specialized systems available for visually impaired people. Currently, the system retails for $2500 in the United States.


“Therapeutic virtual reality is transforming how we manage difficult to treat medical conditions, including severely impaired vision due to macular degeneration. Working with IrisVision, Samsung is deploying its GearVR headset, paired with IrisVision’s clinically-validated virtual reality platform to enable the visually disabled to once again see faces and read small print. It does this by digitally-enhancing and magnifying the images in real-time in the wearer’s field of view,” said Dr. David Rhew, Chief Medical Officer & VP and GM of Enterprise (B2B) Healthcare at Samsung Electronics America.

Medgadget asked Ammad Khan, CEO of IrisVision, and Dr. Frank Werblin, Chief Scientist and inventor on the project, some questions about the system.


Conn Hastings, Medgadget: What first inspired you to develop this type of solution for visually impaired people?

Frank Werblin, IrisVision: I’ve been working in the area of vision research and vision restoration for 40 years, most recently as Professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. Much of that work has focused on restoring vision to the blind. But I sensed a need for serving a much larger community of the visually-impaired: those who still have some remaining useful vision.


With digital remapping and the most advanced mobile VR technology, we have developed a way for these patients to access and amplify their limited vision, allowing them to see much more clearly – and consequently, to live more fully.


I teamed up with our CEO Ammad Khan, who at the time was CEO of a very successful mobile app development company in the Bay Area, to develop, refine, and commercialize our wearable low vision aid. Together, Ammad and I are on a mission to bring this innovative technology to the millions of people around the world who might benefit.


Medgadget: What similar options are there at present for someone looking to improve their vision? What advantages does IrisVision offer over pre-existing options?

Ammad Khan, IrisVision: Today’s standard low vision aid is a CCTV (closed circuit television) device with a mouse-like scanner that magnifies text for reading. These are stationary devices that can only be used in a fixed location, such as at a desk. As you might expect, we’ve found that low vision individuals yearn to see clearly in all aspects of life — not just reading, and not just in one spot. That’s why what we’re doing at IrisVision is so important – we’re helping people with low vision regain the ability to see everywhere life takes them.


There are other wearable or portable digital devices in the market, but they are much more expensive, less flexible, and have inferior image display capabilities. IrisVision is the only wearable low vision aid that combines the latest in mobile VR technology with rigorous medical research, at a price many individuals with low vision can afford.


Medgadget: What types of visual impairment can the system help with?


Frank Werblin: We have developed specific algorithms to accommodate different visual disorders. One suite of functions addresses and compensates for Macular Degeneration, a broad range of visual diseases that impair central vision. Another set of algorithms addresses Retinitis Pigmentosa, a disease that diminishes peripheral vision and night vision. We are working on algorithms that will compensate for glaucoma and central visual disorders such as hemianopsia, the loss of one half of the visual field.


Medgadget: Please describe the different features of the system and the manner in which they help with visual impairment. Did you partner with experts in vision impairment in designing the system? 


Frank Werblin: For macular degeneration, we enhance contrast, control ambient level, magnify regions of interest in the scene, adjust field of view, control intraocular distance and provide user control over many of these features. For retinitis pigmentosa, we generate a user-control over “minification,” giving the user a “reverse telescopic” view of the world that “fits into” their very limited visual field. In summary, these features allow users with very different vision impairments to see clearly whether they’re reading a book, viewing something in the distance, or anything in between.


For our macular degeneration studies, the Lions Low Vision and Vision Rehabilitation Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Center has been our partner for more than four years. For our RP studies, we have been working with clinicians at the New England College of Optometry. For our glaucoma studies, we are partnering with the Stanford Department of Ophthalmology.


Medgadget: How does the system give users control over their sight restoration?

Ammad Khan: Each user’s visual world is in constant state of dynamic change. Considering this, our system allows users to adjust or tune their IrisVision device to accommodate changes in their visual world. Changes to brightness, contrast, magnification, field of view and other settings can be made easily using the device’s built-in controller.


With IrisVision, our users are able to venture into the world and see things they haven’t seen clearly for decades. They’re continually finding new and innovative ways to use IrisVision to regain their independence and make the most of their remaining vision.


Medgadget: How has the system been received by users so far?


Ammad Khan: We’ve had lots of people with low vision try IrisVision, and the positive feedback and stories they’ve shared with ushave been absolutely inspiring.  Grandparents are seeing their grandchildren’s faces clearly for the first time. Art lovers are getting to enjoy museum visits to see their favorite paintings, or live performances at Broadway shows like Hamilton. Children with low vision are able to participate fully at school, including extracurricular activities like orchestra. And, of course, most are able to regain independence in their daily lives – which is often why our users decide to try IrisVision in the first place.

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