How VR Lets the Visually Impaired See

Goggles aren’t just for games

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual reality goggles are allowing people with vision problems to see well for the first time. 
  • The $2,950 goggles made by IrisVision work by harnessing the power of a Samsung smartphone mounted in a Samsung VR headset.
  • Some visually impaired VR users say they can see virtual spaces better than in real life.
A senior adult pointing out something they are viewing through VR to a younger child.
IrisVision

Jimmy Blakley spent decades peering through a fog. He’s legally blind and until recently couldn’t even read a book. "I’m sitting here now in front of a 70-inch TV about a foot away, and I can’t even see the faces," he said over the phone recently in an East Texas drawl. 

Everything changes, though, when he puts on a pair of virtual reality goggles.

"Now, I can see," he said bluntly but with an edge of glee in his voice. 

Blakley, 72, lost most of his vision to macular degeneration. Doctors told him that his condition was caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam. Years of treatment were unsuccessful, and he was deemed legally blind. But his life changed two years ago when he was given a pair of IrisVision VR goggles designed to enhance vision. 

Goggles to the Rescue

The $2,950 goggles made by IrisVision work by harnessing the power of a Samsung smartphone mounted in a Samsung VR headset. The goggles enhance the picture of the surroundings for people who are visually impaired. The IrisVision is one of a number of virtual reality setups that are helping many people regain sight. 

"IrisVision helps the user's brain use the parts of their eyes that still function properly and provides enough information to fill in the gaps and remap the scene captured by the smartphone camera into a complete picture," IrisVision co-founder and CEO Ammad Khan said in an email interview. "This scene enhancement is performed using multiple algorithms developed for various eye conditions."

IrisVision VR Goggles
IrisVision

Although IrisVision doesn’t work for every eye condition, the need for such technology is great. An estimated 11 million people in the U.S. have some form of age-related macular degeneration. This number is expected to double to nearly 22 million by 2050.

Macular degeneration destroys the macula, the part of the eye that provides sharp, central vision needed for seeing objects clearly. Less than 10% of people with visual impairment have total vision loss. This means that for most, the information from the environment for everyday activities can be enhanced with the use of VR and AI. 

VR Goggles Allow Him to Read Books

For Blakley, the technology has been a game-changer. His IrisVision goggles were paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) after other treatments failed. Now, he’s able to read books and watch movies easily for the first time in years. "My life is totally different now," he said. "I can’t believe how much this technology has helped me." 

Blakley said there was even an unexpected benefit to the goggles when he watched Game of Thrones. During scenes in the infamous episode "The Long Night," (in the show’s final season) which many viewers complained were too dark, Blakley said his IrisVision set automatically enhanced the show. "I was the only one who could see the dragons," he said. 

Unlike other low vision solutions on the market, IrisVision is a smart device connected to the internet via a cellular data network or Wi-Fi, which opens up accessibility and remote support to people anywhere in the world, Khan said. It also makes the device able to personalize its functionality to each user’s specific vision conditions. 

"IrisVision helps the user's brain... to fill in the gaps and remap the scene captured by the smartphone camera into a complete picture."

Growing Number of VR Devices for Vision

Other VR devices are also being used to treat vision problems. A startup called GiveVision, for example, makes a pair of VR goggles called SightPlus that have been clinically validated as a medical device that restores sight for patients who are diagnosed with untreatable sight loss.

The low vision aid helps people to see clearly, up close and at a distance using a mix of VR and augmented reality (AR).

"SightPlus' augmented video feed is designed to make our patients feel as if they’re looking with their own eyes, and we have worked hard to make it feel as natural as possible," CEO Stan Karpenko told Forbes.

"Key technical elements include having a high number of frames per second to enhance the image smoothness, low latency to help to avoid nausea, and consistent processing to remove any variability in the image quality."

There’s also the eSight, a virtual reality setup that’s similar to IrisVision but uses a custom set of goggles at a higher cost. The eSight works by "stimulating synaptic activity from the remaining photoreceptor function in the user’s eyes to provide increased visual information to the brain," the company writes on its website.

Someone using VR goggles and controls while looking at a large whiteboard.
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

The website further explains, "The streamlined design incorporates the patient’s natural peripheral vision and includes patented Bioptic Tilt: tilt down for maximum enhanced vision and up to connect face to face or to access their natural vision when navigating new places." 

One of the biggest challenges that VR can help solve for people with low vision is navigation, experts say. "Virtual reality can serve as a tool to test the AR in indoor environments and familiarize the user with scenarios outside," said Sukriti Chadha, the accessibility product manager at digital music service Spotify.

"An example would be using VR at home to help a user navigate a busy street and customize the information and sensory output they are most comfortable with. For example, whether they would like tactile vs. spoken feedback," Chadha said.

"This would include considerations such as how much information about the streets, buildings and traffic they need—and whether that should appear as enlarged text and symbols, or spoken. When the user is actually in that environment, these enhanced cues from the surroundings will be familiar, and hence safer to use."

Seeing More Clearly in Virtual Space

Regular VR goggles are even allowing some people with poor vision to see more clearly in virtual space. Alex Lee says that he lost most of his vision to a rare genetic disease, but was able to play games clearly when he used an HTC Vive headset to play LA Noire

"I can’t believe how much this technology has helped me." 

"Normally, everything in a video game is an indecipherable blur, and I assumed it would be the same in virtual reality," Lee wrote in an article for Alphr. "Instead, I was met with a surprise: I could actually see more in this 1940s virtual world than in other games. More than that, I could see more in VR than I could in real life."

Gary Rubin, an emeritus professor at the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, told Lee that it’s because the images are bigger. "Placing two screens inches from your eyes is essentially making things larger by filling your field of vision," Rubin said. "Additionally, the device will have automatic gain control, which will adjust and boost the contrast of the scene. Contrast is very important in making things visible."

For years, gamers have been using VR to navigate virtual spaces. Now, visually impaired people are using the technology to view the real world and it’s opening up whole new universes.

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