The Assistive Tech Giving Sight to the Visually Impaired

By Marty Graham, Contributor

When employees at eSight feel frustrated or discouraged, they look to how their efforts have changed the lives of people whose very limited vision was dramatically improved by the company’s electronic glasses. They think about Zara Gandhi, an 8-year-old in Ontario, whose low vision from retina damage drastically limited how active she could be. Her sight was so improved by the headgear that she’s become physically active, moving freely in a world she could barely see before. Or they think of the 22 Austin, Texas, residents who were gifted a pair of the eSight glasses to witness the iconic Nutcracker ballet in a special live performance for the visually impaired organized by Dell Technologies, eSight, and Ballet Austin.

“Now I’m back to [thinking], what else can I do, what more can I do—and it’s amazing,” Joseph Mayers told a television reporter after the performance. But as powerful as he found the experience, even more powerful was the ability the assistive technology gave him to see his youngest daughter for the first time since diabetes compromised his vision.

eSight glasses gave 35-year-old Joseph Mayers the ability to see his youngest daughter for the first time since diabetes compromised his vision.

eSight Chief Technology Officer Charles Lim says he is inspired by these users’ stories, and was particularly delighted by a picture he received late last year.

“Some of our users have been able to go back to work, and they now feel a lot more independent and able to do what they love. Another of our users has returned to woodworking. … He is using our technology to essentially use and operate these large woodworking machines to develop beautiful furniture,” Lim says. “And there is another user who has gone back to cooking and taking care of her family. So on Thanksgiving day she sent us a picture with this big turkey that she was able to… cook because now she can actually see again.”

For Charles Lim, eSight Chief Technology Officer, being part of giving people the ability to return to the activities they once loved may be the best part of his job.

Being part of giving people the ability to return to the activities they once loved may be the best part of his job, Lim says.

Lim joined the Toronto-based company in 2018 as part of a prestigious new C-stable with the task of scaling up the company and its platform. He relishes the job of taking eSight out to the world; the device changes people’s lives, he says, and it has been clinically evaluated and validated.

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The latest generation of the visual aid glasses, eSight 3, consists of two small high-definition screens, a camera that captures real-world images, and an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered program that enhances them according to the limitations—and needs—of each individual wearer. Not only does it magnify the image, but it can also add color, contrast, and other information to help with individual vision limitations.

A Worldwide Need and Growing

eSight’s electronic glasses can do all sorts of things eyes can’t; for example, a patented technology lets users freeze an image, go in for a close up, and even store the image. Users can plug the device into television, gaming consoles, and other visual electronics, translating digital images through its screens, and they can also share their video feed via an app on the Android 5.0 operating system.

“We have the ability to share what you see with different people, as well, ” Lim says.

eSight eyewear doesn’t work for people with no vision at all, but the breakthrough technology does work for people with low vision—some legally blind—who may only see light and dark, color and shapes in part of their field of vision.

Several million Americans have low vision, according to National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute, and that number is expected to double in the next decades. And tens of millions more throughout the world experience low vision. Much of that vision loss is because of compromised retinas, the eye tissue in the center of the eye that is sensitive to light and captures images.

Diseases that result in low vision include diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, macular degeneration, Stargardt disease in kids with juvenile muscular dystrophy, retinopathy of prematurity, which is one of the health threats to infants born prematurely, and some genetic syndromes. Many of these retina damaging diseases and conditions block the center of the vision field, but leave traces of visual information around the edges. This is where eSight’s technology comes in.

eSight3 is more than a strap-on magnifier, Lim explains. It engages the wearer’s brain. “It works by stimulating the remaining photoreceptor function in the user’s eyes. … This can provide the brain with increased visual information to naturally compensate for gaps in the users’ field of view.”

A Personal Mission

The onset of retina damage after a lifetime of sight leaves many people—and their loved ones—searching for ways to gain or regain enough vision to return to their sighted lives. One of the many people searching for help for his loved ones was eSight founder Canadian Conrad Lewis, an electrical engineer. He founded the company in 2006 and introduced the first eSight device in 2013. Lewis has two legally blind sisters, and he wanted to gift them with sight, a gateway to greater independence and more mobility. Throughout his 30-year career, he gathered concepts and pieces of technology toward that end.

“The most delightful experience I have seen with this invention is seeing the reactions of people that have seen their kids and spouses or best friends for the first time in their life.”

—Charles Lim, CTO, eSight

With continuous improvements underway, the second generation eSight was released in 2015, and the third iteration came out in 2017. One of the most important improvements is that the wearer can still rely on her own unaugmented peripheral vision while using the device. The true augmented reality experience—as opposed to immersive virtual reality—means users are not caught inside the screen version of their surroundings. Rather, they can see the environment they’re walking through and avoid tripping, for example, without turning the device’s focus to the floor. The user’s field of view, in other words, is bigger than the screen attached to glasses.

Learning From the Users

The company actively engages users—with their consent, of course—to learn what will improve their experience. Some of its most engaging staff are eSight wearers who came aboard after they began using the device.

“We’re working on new features that will improve the user experience, ease of use, comfort and make the device more interactive, based on feedback from our users.”

Despite the increasingly complex inter-workings of the technology, the device is getting smaller and lighter, and Lim hopes to see it get even smaller. He also wants the price to decrease, though it already is lower now, at $5,995, than it was just a few years ago, when it debuted at $9,995.Competitors have used eSight’s price in promoting their own, less expensive head-mounted products, which Lim thinks are closer to magnifiers. eSight holds 23 patents on its proprietary technology, and the company isn’t licensing any of them.

The Best Part? Seeing People See

For Lim, the best part of his eSight experience is seeing the happiness and the expanding lives of the people they’ve been able to provide with this enhanced vision.

“The most delightful experience I have seen with this invention is seeing the reactions of people that have seen their kids and spouses or best friends for the first time in their life. It is very touching,” he says. “My biggest disappointment with the technology is the cost. We are still working hard to figure out ways to continue to bring the cost down so we can further extend the reach of our technology to help an even larger group of people worldwide.”

With increased funding and word getting out about what eSight can do, industries are looking at ways to utilize the highly refining vision tool; for example, in medical practices where being able to share a real-time, zoomed image or video during an examination or procedure could save time and expense. It’s an idea that eSight is interested in, as well. But for Lim and the company’s employees, that’s still a side trip from the core belief that eSight is about giving people more expansive, satisfying, and joyful lives.

“I’ve worked on, for example, the Hubble telescope spacecraft; I’ve done video systems for the NASA shuttle Discovery. But nothing comes close to actually seeing people [be] touched when they are able to see their kids again, … their spouses” he says. “I’ve done a lot of complicated technology in my life … but eSight’s [sense of] contributing back to society is second to none.”