Marshall man makes vision app

David Briggs
SEEING: Pat Healy explored the world through a virtual reality headset on Saturday. The device is paired with a program developed by Marshall resident Frank Werblin to help people with macular degeneration.  
08/06/2015

A new smartphone app that helps people with low-vision underwent a successful litmus test in West Marin last week.  If the app—designed by a former professor who lives in Marshall—secures federal approval, it could provide millions with a relatively affordable option to remedy failing eyesight.

Created by Frank Werblin, a Marshall resident and former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the app treats macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that severely impairs vision. His company, Visionize L.L.C., uses the same sort of hardware that powers virtual-reality videogames. But instead of leading you on a simulated, remote-controlled adventure, the headset aims to rectify the debilitating symptoms of retina deterioration, which macular degeneration causes.

The headset is part ski goggles, part baseball catcher’s mask, and it’s coated with sleek white plastic. The wearer views the world through the medium of a mobile app, activated via a Samsung smart phone clipped lengthwise across binocular-style lenses. Once the phone’s built-in camera captures images, an internal processor projects a virtual-reality replica of sights magnified and clarified.

“A year ago, this technology didn’t exist,” said Mr. Werblin, a neurobiology professor for 40 years who specializes in retina research. “In a few years, instead of ski goggles, it’ll be reading glasses.”

On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Werblin met with Point Reyes Station resident Pat Healy to test the headset. Ms. Healy has lived with macular degeneration since 2002, and whenever she looks straight at something all she can see in the center of her field of vision is a big, bright blur. She describes her retinas as having holes like Swiss cheese.

“When you live with [macular degeneration], you are trapped inside a place that changes your life entirely,” said Ms. Healy, the former owner of the Station House Café, who has lived in Point Reyes Station for over 40 years. “It’s like a prison. Your brain is working faster than your eyes.”

Macular degeneration affects more than 10 million Americans, more than cataracts and glaucoma combined, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Though causes of the disease are not conclusively known, the disease results in a deterioration of the central portion of the retina and disrupts a person’s ability to read, drive a car, recognize faces or colors and see objects in fine detail. It affects both young and old people.

Seated on a grey leather ottoman in her living room, Ms. Healy held the headset, studying it like a kind of Pandora’s box. After receiving a brief tutorial from Mr. Werblin, she strapped it around her head and let the large, goggle-type frame rest on her nose. At first, nothing happened. 

“Well, I don’t quite know how to control this,” she said, turning her head slowly from side to side. With the entire top half of her face blocked by the Samsung phone, she peered at a wide convex bubble covering half of the screen. This bubble is where the virtual reality component comes into play and works by magnifying and enhancing images in the bubble’s center to the same level of clarity as a person’s unaffected, relatively adequate peripheral vision.

“It’s a computer-generated magnification of the whole field of vision,” Mr. Werblin explained. 

But everything that Ms. Healy could see on the screen, she said, was too dark. Mr. Werblin corrected the app’s light setting like one would a camera’s aperture by pressing a button on the side of the headset. Then he handed over a green bottle of prescription eye drops.

“My God,” Ms. Healy murmured as she read the bottle’s writing. “Wow. Isn’t this interesting. I can read ‘Refresh.’”

Mr. Werblin smiled. “Look at your hands,” he said. She did so, her lips parted slightly in amazement, as Mr. Werblin talked about the origins of Visionize.

For many years, Mr. Werblin has been fascinated by Oculus VR, a virtual-reality company based in Silicon Valley that designs headsets. The company’s flagship product, the Oculus Rift, is still in development and is predicted to be the leading consumer-targeted virtual reality headset. 

While at Berkeley, Mr. Werblin participated in the development of a computer chip that is inserted directly into the eye to help blind people see. He retired from the university about two years ago, at which point he started his own company, Visionize, with the intent of researching and devising cutting-edge techniques for treating vision loss.

Now fully funded primarily by a private investor whose daughter suffers from macular degeneration, Mr. Werblin recruits Visionize employees from among the best optometrists and engineers; his main collaborator, Bob Massof, is the founder and director of the Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Mr. Werblin and his Visionize team are pursuing two projects. The first is the headset that Ms. Healy tested on Saturday, which incorporates off-the-shelf hardware like Samsung smart phones. The other is a more complicated project that is focused on developing new, in-house hardware, absent cell phones.

The goal, Mr. Werblin said, is to shrink the technology to a convenient size and offer it at an affordable price. Though Mr. Werblin has to wait for FDA-approval for the app software before he can market the headset, he plans to sell it for a couple thousand dollars—much less than the competition, eSight, which sells a similar headset for $15,000.

Already, the headset can be found in medical clinics across the United States, including one as far away as Mobile, Alabama. Eventually, Mr. Werblin hopes his Visionize products will be used not only to treat low-vision patients, but also to help physicians make diagnoses. And by utilizing smartphone app technology, Mr. Werblin foresees being able to tweak and update the headset’s system automatically, from anywhere across the globe.

“This is the cutting-edge of telemedicine,” he said. 

As he spoke, Ms. Healy looked toward the southern façade of her living room, where a wide floor-to-ceiling window gave a vast, panoramic view of Tomales Bay. She hasn’t seen the birds flying over the bay clearly for many, many years, nor has she been able to descry from a distance the wooden fence bordering her backyard patio. She saw both on Saturday.

After a while, Mr. Werblin switched the app’s setting to reading mode. With this setting, the background turns dark blue and words appear in white.

“Holy cow!” she said. “I’ve got blue walls! Oh my God, I’m at a party here. I’m on like a drug or something.”

She scanned the title of a book about Pope Francis that was lying next to her on the ottoman.

“’Francis: Pope of a New World,’” she read aloud. “Oh Lordy, Lordy. I can’t believe I’m reading this.”

At the end of her hour-long test run, Ms. Healy declared that the Visionize headset does, indeed, work. But, despite the success, Ms. Healy’s experience was not without a few glitches. The frame that held the phone pressed against her nose uncomfortably, she said, a problem Mr. Werblin reassured would be fixed when the system downsizes to a smaller, standard-glasses model. She also noted that moving her head created a slightly disorienting effect, and that she couldn’t imagine trying to stand and walk. Ms. Healy had hit upon one of the headset’s most challenging technical bugs, Mr. Werblin said, whereby images that manifest on the phone’s screen are delayed from real-time by about 100 milliseconds. But, he added, he and other engineers are working to correct the issue “as we speak.”

Aside from these few complaints, Ms. Healy had nothing but praise for Mr. Werblin’s headset. “I think it’s very exciting,” she concluded.

 

Further information about Visionize and Mr. Werblin’s headset may be found at www.visionizellc.com.