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Kanata innovation allowing ‘blind’ people to see Laura Mueller

News - Six months ago, Monique Zellerer finally lost her driver’s licence. It was a slow decline. For 15 years, Stargardt’s disease had been robbing her of her sight. Driving was the latest in a long line of things she could no longer do: reading books, deciphering handwriting and sewing among them. Like many people who are or become legally blind, Zellerer put those too-difficult tasks behind her and adapted to move forward. But in the past month, Zellerer has been able to take up crosstitch to replace an ornament eaten by a dog long ago and has dusted off her sewing machine to whip up outfits for her grandchildren. “In some ways, I sometimes see too much now,” she said with a laugh, describing how her stitches were getting too tiny. Zellerer’s newfound precision comes thanks to a Kanata innovation: eSight eyewear. It would have been almost unthinkable seven years ago for a legally blind person to see like a normally sighted person. Wearable devices for people with low vision existed, but they were clunky, heavy and didn’t process images quickly enough to compare to normal sight.

Laura Mueller/Metroland

Stittsville resident Monique Zellerer purchased eSight eyewear last fall when she lost her driver’s licence after becoming legally blind. The device allows her to regain some of the vision she has been losing steadily for 15 years. The company’s founder, Conrad Lewis, saw that as a challenge and a way to improve the lives of his two sisters, who like Zellerer, lost most of their vision to Stargardt’s disease. That was in 2007. Last year, the company fully launched its eyewear – a black, visor-like device worn over the user’s prescription lenses. Today, almost 100 people who are legally blind

(less than 10 per cent vision) or who have low vision are using the $9,750 devices, said eSight’s president and chief executive officer, Kevin Rankin. The eyewear magnifies images up to 14 times, autofocuses as the wearer moves around and allows for different colour and contrast modes to make things like reading easier. The device can improve vision for

people with poor eyesight resulting from a number of genetic conditions or diseases, including: macular degeneration, ocular albinism, Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, conerod dystrophy, diabetic retinopathy and some forms of glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa. People with as little as five per cent of full vision have been able to regain some sight using eSight, Rankin said. The number of people who could stand to benefit from the technology staggered Rankin. There are 250 million people worldwide who have uncorrectable low vision and 10 million of them live in North America. “We believe we can make a huge difference in probably half of those people,” Rankin said. The range of feedback is outstanding, he said. His favourite comments are from families whose young children are able to see their parents for the first time using eSight eyewear. “It’s allowing people to not be so isolated from the rest of the world,” Rankin said. Zellerer hasn’t felt isolated, but she has felt held back. “I still consider myself to have a lot of vision,” she said, adding that she can still play soccer even without her eyewear because she has clearer peripheral vision and can see out of the corner of her eye.

Zellerer was training for her second profession as a teacher when she began to lose her sight and by the time she entered the classroom, she would have to get students to read overhead slides aloud because she couldn’t see them. Things like taking attendance were becoming a challenge, as was reading textbooks over students’ shoulders. Reading their handwriting was next to impossible, Zellerer said. “It was just too difficult,” she said. “It was slow and it was just a little more stressful ... Now, I can watch them even as they’re writing and read their work, she said. Kids aren’t thrown off by the eyewear, Zellerer said. “Little boys line up to look at it,” she said. They love technology and to them, the device makes her something of a superhero, Zellerer said. In the future, Zellerer holds out hope that the medical community will find a cure for Stargardt’s disease, but in the meantime, eSight gives her comfort that she’ll be able to tackle day-to-day tasks for years to come. In the future, Rankin said eSight will focus on better integrating the eyewear with other lifestyle technology, such as the ability to sync with the displays of items like smartphones or computers so the images on those screens can be transmitted directly into the eyewear’s display.

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