Solutions for Human Vision — Technology to the Rescue
SSight is one of the senses that can't be replicated by technology — at least not yet. Eyes and how they interpret light — much like a camera lens — limits the ability of technology to replace its natural functions, such as interpreting, gathering and focusing images. However, advances in technology, which is a steadily evolving field, are providing solutions including techniques and procedures to improve human vision.
The following statistics prove the importance of technology for human vision
- An estimated 2.5B people with poor vision don't have it corrected.
- Over 2.5M eye injuries occur every year
- 60.5% of Americans have reported having experienced symptoms of digital eye strain
- 50,000 Americans go blind every year
- The number of Americans who are blind or visually impaired is expected to double to more than 8M by 2050
- Looking at computer screens may lead to half of the world's population becoming short-sighted by 2050
One of the challenges in disability and assistive technology is finding funding. However, the National Eye Institute (NEI) has funded some technologies that are under development aimed at lessening the impact of low vision and blindness. The National Institutes of Health has also funded a project that aims to develop a precision navigation app for the blind.
Vision Problems — Types
The following are the most common types of vision problems:
- Nearsightedness — Also known as myopia, is the inability to see objects clearly unless they are relatively close.
- Farsightedness — Also known as Hyperopia, is the inability to see objects clearly, especially if they are relatively close.
- Astigmatism — A defect in the curvature of the cornea resulting in distorted images and causing eye strain and headaches especially after prolonged visual tasks.
- Presbyopia — Farsightedness that usually occurs in middle and old age caused by loss of elasticity of the eye lens making it more difficult to do close-up tasks.
Technology to the Rescue of Human Vision
Technology is so diverse that at times, solutions stem from instances that are not directly related to the human eye. For example, necessary improvements on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope led to building better contact lenses and more accurate laser surgery. Considered a blunder as it produced blurry images, the Telescope needed corrective optics to fix the problem. Abbott Medical Optics', Dan Neal, helped create perfectly designed corrective lenses for the eyes using wavefront technology originally used to adjust space telescopes to reduce distortions when viewing distant objects.
Numerous device-based technologies have been developed to help aid eyesight problems.
These devices include:
Device Based Technology Solutions
- Corneal Inlay — A small, ring-like device that may soon replace reading glasses. Implanted under the eye's outer surface, it can correct both near-sightedness and far-sightedness.
- Printing new eye — Possibly being able to aid in curing blindness, 3D printed eye cells use a printer to print living retinal cells of adult rats in any pattern, which could be used to create tissue grafts for defective eye tissues. 3D printing is also being used to create prosthetic eyes.
- Smartphone eye exams — Remote vision tests are made possible using a mobile app and a digital retina camera attached to a smartphone. Peek™ and D-EYE™ have created this portable exam tool to allow doctors to examine retinal images especially for people located in remote places.
- Apps for blind - A host of new visually impaired assistive technology apps are being developed to help with vision problems, including TapTapSee and VizWiz. TapTapSee is a mobile camera app that can "speak" to the visually impaired by telling them what an object is when they point a smartphone camera at an object. The VizWiz app, which combines automatic image processing, anonymous web workers, and members of the user's social network, allows the blind to quickly receive answers to questions about their surroundings.
- Gene therapy for vision loss — Researchers from Johns Hopkins have shown that an experimental gene therapy is safe and may be effective in preserving the vision of those with macular degeneration — a leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. and for which no treatment exists. Likewise, the Biotechnology Company, Spark Therapeutics, is working on the gene therapy called voretigene neparvovec to treat RPE65-mediated inherited retinal disease, a rare retinal disorder that causes blindness.
- Stem Cells — Humayan and Clegg are working on trials which should end next year,of a stem cell device. A patch with 120,000 cells derived from embryonic stem cells is being tested to treat age-related macular degeneration.
Technology based Surgical Solutions
- PRK — Photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) is the first type of laser eye surgery for vision correction which reshapes the cornea for correcting nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. The procedure involves removing and discarding the outer layer of the cornea prior to reshaping the underlying corneal tissue with an ultraviolet laser called an exciplex laser.
- LASEK — Laser-Assisted Sub-Epithelial Keratectomy (LASEK) is combined with PRK to treat nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism. The procedure involves using a laser to create a thin flap on the cornea that is lifted to expose the corneal tissue which is replaced after the cornea is reshaped with an exciplex laser.
- RLE — Also known as clear lens extraction or Lens Replacement Surgery, Refractive Lens Exchange (RLE) is the replacement of the clear natural lens in the eyes with an artificial intraocular lens (IOL) to correct refractive error so patients, especially those with extreme farsightedness, have sharper focus and reducing the need for wearing glasses.
- Epi-LASEK — Similar to LASEK, Epi-LASEK creates a flap thinner than the one created through LASEK and is an alternative for those with corneas than are thinner than normal.
- PRELEX — Cataracts, presbyopia, nearsightedness and farsightedness can be treated with PRELEX. Short for Presbyopic Lens Exchange, the procedure involves the removal of the natural lens in the eye and implanting a multi-focal lens that allows the eye to focus.
- RK — Radial keratotomy (RK) is a surgical procedure to correct nearsightedness or astigmatism. After local anesthesia is applied, incisions are made to flatten the cornea to help improve vision.
Technology based non-surgical solutions
- Gentle Vision retainer shaping system (GVRSS) — This non-surgical solution uses specially designed vision retainer lenses similar to contact lenses to gently and gradually reshape the cornea. It is worn while sleeping to aid in providing patients with clear vision by eliminating or reducing nearsightedness or astigmatism.
- Non-surgical Cataract Therapy — Cataracts, which causes blurred vision due to the eye lens becoming opaque, is the leading cause of blindness. However, it may soon be treated or prevented with eye drops rather than surgery. One type of eye drop that contains the organic compound lanosterol would be a cheaper and easier alternative to surgery and effective for those with moderate cataracts. Another eyedrop, made from a natural substance found in many plants called lutein, has been developed by scientists at Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter. N-acetylcarnosine ((NAC)) is another anti-glaucoma eyedrop that is being studied in Russia and the US as a possibility to reverse or prevent cataracts. Furthermore, Murugappan Muthukumar, one of the leading polymer physicists in the world, is working with Washington University researcher, Nathan Ravi, to develop a polymer hydrogel as a non-surgical cataract treatment.
Can Technology Cure Blindness?
Although there have been numerous advances in technology to tread vision problems, there is still no cure for blindness. Fully replicating human vision has not yet been achieved, however, technology has helped in the ability for those with poor vision to see to a certain degree. Retinal implants, such as Second Sight Medical Products Inc.'s Retinal Prosthesis System (Argus II), is intended to provide electrical stimulation of the retina to induce visual perception in patients with degenerative eye diseases. Known as the bionic eye, it is surgically implanted in the retina and sends pulses of electricity to stimulate and restore the function of the retina's damaged light-activated cells.
Ways scientists are trying to end blindness include:
- The National Eye Institute's Audacious Goals Initiative is working on finding a way to regenerate lost nerve cells to restore vision.
- A clinical trial at UCLA tested retinal pigment epithelium cells made from embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos and implanted them into a patient's eye and found that after two years, the procedure hadn't caused serious issues in patients in the trial.
- UC Irvine is working on a clinical trial using retinal-progenitor cells which are stem-cells to treat retinitis pigmentosa, a disease where the retina is damaged.
- A painless procedure, femtosecond laser technology, takes less than 10 seconds and uses pulses instead of a blade to make an incision during Lasik surgery.
- Those with high levels of nearsightedness can benefit from Visian ICL, where permanent contact lenses are inserted into the eyes.
- Inserting Ocumetics' Bionic Lens, which is a painless procedure that would take less than 10 minutes, could give patients vision three times better than 20/20 thereby replacing the need for eyeglasses and contact lenses.
- Sufferers of end-stage macular degeneration can find hope in VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies' tiny, 3.6mm implantable telescope that replaces the eye's lens and magnifies images in front of the eye.
- Iris by Pixium Vision is being tested to restore the vision of the blind. A tiny silicon chip with 150 electrodes, activated by pulses, is implanted on the retina and sends images to the brain.
- Spark Therapeutics' gene therapy product uses adeno-associated virus (AAV) to carry a functioning copy of the RPE65, which causes a form of retinal degeneration caused by a defective RPE65, into retinal cells. Aiding with blindness, it is hoped to be approved this year in 2017.
- Microchips are being used to replace failed retinal cells — which receive visual information. By collecting or amplifying light, these bionic retinas are bringing a low-resolution version of sight to the blind.
- Rochester Nomogram is technology that adjusts the way a laser, such as that used in LASIK surgery, interacts with eye tissue. It greatly reduces the chances of near-sightedness or far-sightedness after the procedure.
- A complete breakthrough for the legally blind is now available by eGlasses from eSight, that lets the blind see and enables them to enjoy mobility and independence as they engage in virtually all activities of daily living.
The Larger Players in the Vision industry
Like any other health issue, the issues around vision are to be addressed by the larger community. However, research for vision related solutions are not so well funded and hence near term solutions to solve the problem are not in sight. The larger players in the industry like Microsoft and Google are leading the way in technological advances for human vision and there are very few smaller players.
Microsoft is using Artificial Intelligence to assist the blind through an iOS app called Seeing AI. Using AI-powered vision recognition, the app aims to help blind and those with low-vision understand images. Pointing the phone's camera at a person can narrate to the user who the person is, or when pointed an object can narrate what the object is.
Microsoft is also developing machine learning algorithms on a micro-controller, or tiny computer on a single integrated circuit. A prototype device is an intelligent walking stick for the blind that can detect falls and administer a call for assistance.
A vision-correcting electronic device that would replace the eye's natural lens with an electronic lens implant is in development by Google. The electronic implant, fitted directly onto the eye, will potentially be able to change shape and fix vision problems. These "cyborg lenses", patented by Google, could possibly even connect to a nearby wireless device and send data to a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
eyeSight creates sensing solutions using Deep Learning, AI and advanced proprietary embedded computer vision models to allow touch-free interactions with the devices. eyeSight software allows users to control devices by converting finger or hand motions into commands. It even uses facial recognition to interact with devices, such as suggesting programs based on the person watching TV. Other products include monitoring distracted driving by tracking gaze direction, eye openness and head position; and customizing room temperature, for example, by sensing the presence of a user.
eSight, an eyewear R&D company, fundamentally believes that Everyone Deserves To See. With their breakthrough electronic glasses, the legally blind or visually impaired can actually see, and independently engage in virtually all activities of daily living. Technology, combined with a deep passion for humanity, has enabled them to create something truly transformative.
Technology brings major breakthroughs in treating human vision diseases. Laser treatments at present holds more popularity, however in the future the focus will be more on non-surgical treatments for human vision. With the emergence of many new technologies, the near future will bring even more technologies that will help the visually impaired. Although finding a way to completely restore vision using technology is most likely not in the near future, efforts to treat or cure eyesight problems can mean that this common disability can be treated using advanced and effective technology. Not only will these technologies, such as remote vision tests, be able to treat those without access to doctors, but even those located in remote areas.
We have come a long way from the myth of eating carrots to improve eyesight. We're only getting closer to getting solutions to vision problems. Where there was once no hope for the blind, various technological advances are now playing a role in not only improving, but correcting vision impairments. Whether it's an app, an implant, surgery or other high-tech solution, there is hope for those who suffer from different vision problems.
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This post was written by Asokan Ashok, the CEO of UnfoldLabs. Ashok is an expert in driving customer insights into thriving businesses and commercializing products for scale. As a leading strategist in the technology industry, he is great at recommending strategies to address technology & market trends. Highly analytical and an industry visionary, Ashok is a sought after global high-tech industry thought leader and trusted strategic advisor by companies.
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