- Associated Press - Saturday, October 22, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Alex Curtis‘ grandchildren think the thick goggles make him look like a spaceman. With the dark lenses and the cord snaking down to a set of dials and controls, the device does look futuristic.

But what people see when Curtis wears the eSight device doesn’t matter to him.

What matters are the details he can see on the faces of his seven grandchildren - the subtle ways he can now recognize his own expressions in theirs.

Born with glaucoma and cataracts, Curtis, 45, had known the world only through clouded sight. He could see color, light and shapes but couldn’t make out the finer details of printed words or familiar faces. To watch TV, he’d have to sit within inches of the screen.

At his workplace, the nonprofit Outlook Nebraska Inc., Curtis spent five years stacking boxes of toilet paper on pallets without being able to read what was printed on the cardboard.

Then Outlook Nebraska purchased six of the $15,000 eSight devices to help its employees become more independent on the job. Curtis slipped the goggles over his eyes and he could see the words on the boxes and the details of the control panel he had been using for half a decade. He took the device home and he could see his wife - “Boy, that was a joy,” he said, trailing off - and his children and grandchildren. He could plug in an HDMI cord to his goggles and watch “The Jerry Springer Show” from his couch. He could now see just how crazy some drivers are and could watch the fights on the ice during an Omaha Lancers hockey game.

“I finally got to see more of what other people see,” Curtis said. “I finally got to see all the things I was missing.”

Curtis is one of nine Outlook Nebraska employees who share the devices, each of which houses a small, high-speed camera that live-streams video on LED screens layered in front of prescription lenses. The user can adjust the color, contrast, brightness and magnification of the video they are seeing in real time. If the magnification makes movement too pronounced, the wearer can pause the video and take a photo.

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2egM6sA ) reports that according to 2013 figures cited by the National Federation of the Blind, an estimated 33,600 Nebraskans reported having a visual disability. It’s difficult to estimate how many of those people could benefit from eSight, said Lisa Kelly, director of enrichment programs at Outlook Nebraska, where more than 60 percent of the workers are visually impaired. In her monthly demonstrations of the technology to the public, she recommends it for people with 20/200 (the definition of “legally blind”) to 20/800 visual acuity.

The exact role and niche of eSight and similar products is unclear, said Dr. John Shepherd, director of the Weigel Williamson Center for Visual Rehabilitation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Other products, such as Visionize, which magnifies real-time images from a smartphone rigged up in a kind of virtual reality headset, may offer cheaper and more accessible options, he said.

“We are starting to see these devices - wearable technologies that use someone’s existing windows of sight and magnify it,” Shepherd said. “It’s really exciting and though the technology is relatively new, I believe it’s here to stay. However, especially at the current price point, it’s not going to be a panacea.”

There’s no data on what particular eye conditions this technology would address the most, Shepherd said, but as technologies like eSight advance, he expects to see those niches emerge.

Magnified real-time video such as that provided by eSight is best for stationary tasks, Shepherd said, making it a good fit for those working at Outlook Nebraska, which provides 100 percent recycled paper products to the U.S. government and other customers.

Kelly agreed, but she said that as soon as the eSight goggles arrived last year, she knew she couldn’t just keep them in the office.

“It wouldn’t be fair to give our people eyes at work and then not let them take that experience home,” she said. “These allow them to take that independence with them.”

Although Outlook Nebraska offers various adaptive technologies both on the production line and in the office, eSight is the most versatile and mobile, Kelly said.

Ben Micek, 30, works in accounting at Outlook Nebraska. Without eSight, his visual acuity is 20/200, meaning that the smallest letters he can identify from 20 feet away are the size of the smallest letters a person with normal vision can see from 200 feet. He was hesitant to even try eSight, fearing that he would get his hopes up just to be disappointed.

With the goggles, his vision improves to 20/10, allowing him to do his own laundry and cook his own meals while wearing them at home. Micek can watch Nebraska football games without having to sit with his nose just inches from the screen. He even wore them to the premiere of the latest “Star Wars” movie, where most people just thought he was just a fan in costume.

“It’s really hard to put into words how it feels to be able to see clearly and get to be independent,” Micek said.

That newfound independence has allowed Katie Larson, also an accountant with the company, to pick out the appliances for her recently purchased home. Now she can check out a pair of the goggles and can read the descriptions on the tags at Nebraska Furniture Mart. After 14 years of playing piano, she finally can make out the musical symbols.

“It’s the little things that people don’t think about that we can now see and do,” she said. “There were times I cried just at realizing what this meant.”

Curtis said he likes the goggles and he’s not complaining, but he is looking forward to a sleeker design in the future. Larson agreed - a couple of people have come up to her at stores and asked if she was playing a virtual reality game.

“I’m not going for style, but you know those glasses from ‘Star Trek?’?” Curtis said with a smile. “I’m hoping for a pair like that. The grandkids would love those.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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