Innovation

Virtual reality gets new depth with Vivid Vision, an application to correct lazy eye

James Blaha spent most of his life with a vision disorder called amblyopia, or lazy eye. Here's how he corrected his own vision with virtual reality.

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Image: Vivid Vision

The first time James Blaha saw in 3D, he backed up in his chair. He was looking at a spinning cube in a virtual reality environment, and the corner stuck out at him.

"I hadn't had that kind of an instinctual reaction to something like that before," he said. It surprised him.

For most of Blaha's life, he had amblyopia, or lazy eye. Amblyopia occurs when vision in one eye is so weak, that the brain learns to ignore or suppress that eye. That interferes with depth perception.

To this point, treatments for amblyopia included red/green glasses, filters, or even covering up the stronger eye to make the weaker one work harder. The long-held belief was that if amblyopia wasn't corrected before a critical age, usually around 8, then, well, too bad.

Blaha was well-past the critical age. But, he'd started reading research in the optometry field that seemed to walk back the idea of that critical age. Perhaps, brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to change or reorganize) wasn't so out of the question later in life.

That reading, combined with an introduction to the Oculus developers kit 1, lead to Blaha learning how to create simple virtual reality games.

So that spinning cube — Blaha created it and adjusted the brightness in each display, making the display in his stronger eye darker, and the display in his weaker eye very bright. In a sense, that made his brain turn on that weaker eye.

All of a sudden, the cube just popped into 3D.

SEE: Why virtual reality could finally mend its broken promise

For the first few weeks, Blaha could only see in 3D while in virtual reality. He developed a small game that entailed breaking bricks by bouncing a ball off a paddle. Within about three weeks of playing that, he started to see things in 3D that were a foot or two away from him, like the keys on his keyboard. His 3D sight expanded out from there, and he now has 90% normal depth perception.

But after that first moment seeing that spinning cube in 3D, he knew he had to drop everything and work on the project full time. Thus was born Diplopia, now called Vivid Vision.

In January of 2014, he launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $2,000 for a Unity license.

He raised $20,000.

That attracted the attention of an accelerator in San Francisco, and after persuading his friend Manish Gupta to leave his job at IBM, they headed West.

Since then, they've raised seed money from venture capitalists and have launched the product in optometry clinics.

Since they're not diagnosing any conditions, they don't have to have FDA approval, although that is something they will be pursuing.

They've done research at the University of California San Francisco, and have advisors who are optometrists.

A blog post on the Vivid Vision's website detailed some of that. For example: "A lot of the choices you make when presenting the specific visual stimuli can have big and unexpected consequences on the quality of the treatment. There are some potential side effects from using the software which we think are extremely unlikely, but we need to prove that in a masked and controlled setting."

"It's a very reasonable process, demonstrating you know what you're doing, it's low risk to the subjects, you're following all the rules," Blaha said.

So far, they're in about 10 optometry clinics, and want to add more. Blaha also said they want to work on new products for other vision problems beyond amblyopia and strabismus (cross eyes).

That cross over into optometry presents something of a challenge. Both Blaha and Gupta are developers, so it takes some work getting familiar with a new industry and breaking into it from the outside.

Within the virtual reality community, many are happy to see a VR application that's not gaming, Blaha said.

He's happy to be part of a change in the way that amblyopia is treated.

"It was the dogma that the critical age couldn't be overcome, and I think for a long time that caused people to not look into it, they felt it was a settled thing," he said.

To an extent, the whole idea of the critical age was true — it couldn't be overcome with traditional methods. It took a constructed reality to create a situation where the conditions between the two eyes were dramatically different. It's a good time to be growing along with that shift in opinion on how to treat amblyopia.

"I think what we're doing it definitely part of that change," he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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