A macular degeneration or glaucoma diagnosis can mean the end of a normal lifestyle in the seeing world.
Now, a pair of glasses jam-packed with new technology is bringing independence to the legally blind in Wichita Falls at the Beacon Lighthouse for the Blind.
The World Health Organization estimates 285 million people are visually impaired, and The National Federation of the Blind reports the number in Texas is 657,300 and Oklahoma is about 135,500.
Jackie Davis, 65, is one of that number, but her blindness impacts more than just her. She is a youth group director at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
“I love to sit with the little ones and read to them,” Davis said. “A lot of the books that I did, I remembered by heart.”
Davis has inherited macular degeneration and over time, lost her central vision.
“That’s your fine vision that helps you you to read, make a straight line, find a line,” she explains. “Those are those little find visions that we take for granted. It’s hard when you don’t have central vision. I’ve not read the newspaper in maybe 25 years.”
She works at Beacon Lighthouse for the Blind off 7th Street in Wichita Falls. It’s an enabling workplace for the visually impaired, offering positions making office supplies.
However, Executive Director Buddy Edgemon has a vision for his employees that goes beyond the office.
“From my side of it, it’s not all about are we going to make six more widgets because of these glasses,” Edgemon said, leaning forward in his office eagerly. “I can’t wait to see someone watch their grandson or granddaughter walk across the stage at graduation, to watch a sporting event and actually see, to go to church and see your preacher, be in the choir. Just, quality of life.”
Enter Nueyes. It’s a veteran-owned company with their hands on technology originally developed by the military. Within the last year, the Osterhouse Design Group (ODG) techonology has gone to the consumer market.
Representatives explained the glasses have a set of lenses, a digital camera, a computer, and a light. The camera essentially live-streams what’s going on around the wearer, then plays it back on the lenses with a brighter, sharper, and larger image.
“It would be like taking your big screen TV at home, miniaturizing it and putting it right in front of your eyes,” said Philip Monroe, principal at TxEyeTech, who works with NuEyes to test the glasses on patients.
“So the person who can normally only see barely past their nose, and look at these two little lenses and see everything they would normally see with corrected vision,” he continued.
You can also control the zoom function of the glasses with a postage-stamp sized remote, or with your voice. The wearer simply says “glasses make bigger” or “glasses make smaller” to zoom in or out. The glasses also connect to an ear piece and a robotic voice will read black and white text into the wearer’s ear.
Monroe and Edgemon met with a NuEyes candidate Paul Thorogood in April to test his eyesight while wearing the glasses.
Thorogood said his vision is around 20/2000, meaning words need to be magnified 100 times before he can read them. In fact, he says he’s never actually seen his wife’s face clearly in his life, until at about 11 am on Thursday, April 20th.
Thorogood was looking around the room, reading posters on the wall and taking in the new sights through the lenses, when he caught sight of his wife standing in a doorway. She was in the dark and hard to clearly see.
Regardless, a smile spread on his face, and he said, “Hello. That’s my beautiful wife. Who’s smiling.”
Karen Thorogood had noticed her face on the large TV screen displaying what Paul’s line of vision.
Eyes brimming, she said, “I’m smiling, because you’re smiling.”
Karen was asked to step into the light, and smiled even wider than before.
“Hi,” she said.
“There you are,” he said.
Paul and Karen Thorogood are parents of three children, and he’s currently inbetween jobs. He says he would like to teach in a public school setting, perhaps English as a second language, or math.
The only thing keeping Thorogood out of his dream career is his vision and the helmet-style glasses he’s had in the past.
“I sometimes wonder about feeling like a space alien,” he said looking around in the NuEyes glasses. “But these don’t have that feel to them. They feel pretty natural. And most students have an affinity to new technology and wondering how things work.”
Monroe says the glasses have a 10 hour battery pack and are meant to take into the workplace, as well as a home.
“It would allow me to read to my children effectively in an unencumbered way,” said Thorogood.
Which Jackie Davis says is her favorite part. She says she remembers the first time she put on the glasses, and saw the light.
“I was so emotional,” she said. “It made me cry. I really cried because I was reading the paper. I was so emotional because I love reading.”
NuEyes representatives say wearable technology is the future. In fact, their new pair of lenses coming out this summer will allow the wearer to watch a movie, check their email, and look something up online– all through the glasses.
They retail at $5,995 and are not covered by health insurance. However, representatives say there are programs through schools, the Veterans Affairs, and state and federal programs that could help offset the cost.
Also, Beacon Lighthouse is currently fundraising to buy more classes for their clients to demo, use at work, and take home for special activities.
The glasses are also not approved for certain activities, like driving.
But clients like Davis and Thorogood say that’s fine for now; they’re looking at the bright side.