From gaming to workplace training, virtual reality can be used for a broad range of applications. Here’s one we’ve not previously come across, however: Helping restore sight for people who are legally blind. That’s what a company called IrisVision is doing, with a smartphone-based VR system that uses the phone’s camera to help people with severe macular degeneration to see better. While it doesn’t actually cure blindness, it does enable users with this vision disorder to carry out tasks — such as reading — that they would otherwise find impossible.
Macular degeneration is a medical condition that often occurs in older people, which is why it is sometimes known as age-related macular degeneration (ARMD). It doesn’t result in total blindness, but it does cause blurred or no vision in the center of a person’s visual field. As a result, it can make it difficult to recognize faces, drive, read, and perform a variety of other activities.
The IrisVision solution is a VR headset which holds a smartphone, in this case a Samsung Galaxy handset. The phone records a person’s surroundings and displays this in real time in a person’s periphery, where they still have vision. The user is able to magnify the image as much as is required in order to see. As a result, the brain no longer perceives the blind spot in the center of a person’s vision. The software the company has developed automatically focuses in on what someone is looking at. This means that they can switch between looking at objects that are extremely close-up, such as a book, or far away, such as a landscape, without having to manually adjust the magnification.
In a study carried out with 30 people who used the IrisVision technology for two weeks, the device was reportedly shown to improve vision to 20/30 — which is extremely close to 20/20 vision.
The technology is now being used in 80 ophthalmology centers around the United States. It costs $2,500, including the price of a Samsung Gear VR headset, plus a Samsung Galaxy S7 or S8 smartphone. The company next plans to modify the software so that it works with other vision disorders.