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eSight: “The technology has the potential to change someone’s life”

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Roland Mattern is Sales and Marketing Director at eSight – a Canadian medtech company designing tech to improve the functional vision of those living with low vision or legal blindness.

Health Tech World sits down with Roland to learn more about the innovative, life-changing technology helping people with vision loss to reclaim their lives.

HTW: Hi Roland. What’s the story behind eSight?

RM: The company was founded about 10 years ago by Conrad Lewis, an electrical engineer in Ottawa.

His sisters were afflicted with Stargardt’s Disease, which is a juvenile form of macular degeneration. 

Both experienced loss of central vision quite early in life. Conrad was inspired to find a solution that would allow his sisters to see again. 

Being the engineer that he was, he started tinkering with ideas in the basement, and eventually came up with what has become eSight. 

We are about to launch our fifth generation product, the eSight Go.

We’re focused on individuals that have lost central vision, but have a peripheral vision that’s still functional. 

There are a number of pathologies that rob you of your central vision. 

Age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy are probably the two biggest categories of patients that we help.

But we’re agnostic to the disease state. We’re more focused on the actual visual symptoms.

Are the conditions quite similar?

The symptomology is similar, but the actual pathology is quite different.

They all destroy the visual sensitivity of the macula, which is where central vision comes from.

You use that for reading, recognising faces, playing cards and so on. Your focus is what’s being impacted. 

If someone is over 20/80 and they lost their central vision, when they put our technology on and their face reappears for the first time in three years, that’s impactful.

They can read again, see the TV or pursue hobbies.

The technology has the potential to change someone’s life in a really positive way. 

It gives you your vision back, or uses your existing vision to enhance your central vision.

And then also gives you all the activities that you may be missing back to use, including independence. 

So how does the tech work?

There’s a camera on the bridge of the nose which picks up the view that the person can no longer perceive in the centre of their vision.

It runs that image through some software which allows the wearer to manipulate the digital signal with contrast, brightness, magnification and colour filters. 

The image is then projected onto two screens, one for each eye.

                       Roland Mattern

You basically blast the entire retinal surface with that central image. 

Whatever photoreceptors are still viable in the periphery or the macula, translate that stimulus to the visual cortex.

The visual cortex interprets that signal as vision does it with any other stimuli. And then, as our users describe it, the blind spot shrinks away. 

What kind of reactions have you seen from users?

A colleague of mine was working with an organisation that deals with visual rehab. 

One of the people that works at the organisation is without central vision.

We had given her a device to try and she put it on. 

She paused for a moment and asked for my colleague’s cell phone.

She grabbed it from him and began flipping through things, saying ‘I can read like a normal person!’ 

Then she looked at him and said: ‘Okay, start talking. Now give me angry. Now give me happy.’ 

She was surprised, because now she could also see those visual cues to the communication which she hadn’t seen for some time.

It’s such an emotional experience to witness that.

Then there were two ladies at our recent user tester session, who both had AMD [age-related macular degeneration].

They had met during low vision rehab, so they had never actually seen each other, but had become really good friends over the past couple of years.

They both put the eSight Go on and were like, ‘Oh, my God, there you are, that’s what you look like!’

But beyond kind first moment, what is really impactful, is people are using it to go back to school and pursue higher education. 

We also have people who are able to go back to work, pursue a different career.

We have people going back to their hobbies, whether it’s fishing, artwork, needlepoint or gardening.

All those things now become part of their life again. 

And because of the way our technology works, we don’t obliterate or obstruct peripheral vision. 

So they can walk to the store and navigate with their peripheral vision.

But when they need to read a food label or price tag, they use the device for the situation momentarily. 

Or if you’re watching a movie, or you’re in the theatre, or a live sporting event, you can use the camera full time.

It’s very versatile and seamlessly fits into your daily activities. 

How much are people using this day to day? Do they put it on when they’re getting out of bed like glasses? Is there a limit to how much you can use it?

Theoretically, the limit is what you want to do with it.

If you want to sit through a three hour Broadway show with it, you can do that.

If you want to play cards all night with your friends, you can do that. 

But if you’re just using it to make a quick meal, you can use it just for that and then for the rest of the day, just walk in with it with your native vision. 

How do you see the tech developing over the coming years? 

I would imagine seeing things getting lighter, smaller and smarter. 

There’s an opportunity for things like machine learning to learn how you use the device, and then automatically adjust settings for you. That’s a possibility. 

Is there an opportunity to measure the distortion of the vision and then pre-distort the image you see? 

Certainly, machine learning and AI could play a role in the coming years. 

User experience and ease of use will continue to improve over the years as the technology gets smaller, lighter and more versatile. 

And perhaps down the road, there’s an opportunity to integrate some type of diagnostic aspect, where we communicate with clinician, and monitor disease progression.

How do you see the future for people with vision loss?

What do you see their life being like, and how do you see tech fitting into that?

Wearable technology for people with impairment or not, I think is a growing market. 

I think acceptance of these technologies in society in general, is going to be much greater, because more and more of us are going to be wearing technologies, for whatever reason, health or otherwise.

The stigma of having an impairment still exists in society.

Some people don’t want to carry a white cane, because they don’t want to stand out in the crowd. 

With these wearable technologies becoming commonplace, it won’t matter whether you’re wearing it for health reasons, communication reasons or for visual impairment.

You just happen to be wearing a wearable device. 

And so that ubiquitous nature of the technologies will continue to grow. 

There’s no need to feel funny because you’re carrying a cane, wearing a headset or using a wheelchair. 

I hope we’re working towards a place where those are accepted and commonplace in the world.

The device is quite conspicuous so, particularly for older people, is there some reluctance there? 

Absolutely.

The eSight 4 may fall into that category, where it works really well, but it’s obvious that you’re wearing technology that helps you. 

There is a portion of our audience that doesn’t want to wear it in public, and there’s a portion of our audience that says, ‘You know what, yeah, I’m not going to wear that.’ 

So one of the goals is to get around that and still deliver that technology to the user and optimise its impact. 

We’ve done a very good job in creating much lighter, more sleek and more aesthetic design. 

We’ve gotten rid of the comfort halo, and we’ve created an aesthetic glasses that has technology built into it.

I think that will create greater access to individuals who may have that fear of standing out from the crowd, like they can with eSight 4. 

[eSight Go] is also lighter and more comfortable to wear, with a longer battery life. 

We’ve also created a wider field of view. We’ve got a faster, more accurate autofocus. 

We’ve integrated really strong image stabilisation technology, so as you zoom in, the image remains stable. 

And it’s much more intuitive. You put it on like a set of glasses. You’ve got four buttons on the arm. 

And navigating that simple software is much easier and more intuitive and friendly for our users.

It is quite a pricey item, as you’d expect for tech like this. But do you see this becoming more accessible to people moving forward? 

One of the objectives with this design was to keep costs down.

The eSight 4 is $6950. We’re looking to come in at under $5,000 for the eSight Go. 

In North America, we  have financing available that keeps the cost as low as $200 a month in the US. 

We’re working very hard to make a device that integrates into your day seamlessly and flawlessly and making accessibility easier, including the price point. 

Do you work with healthcare providers as well?

We partner with both optometry and ophthalmology clinics in North America.

We encourage them to integrate our products into their treatment regimen as they treat the underlying disease. 

So it’s not a competition with the ophthalmologist treating the disease. 

One of our objectives is to continue to build those partnerships and ensure that as many people as possible have the option and the exposure to the technology to see if it’s going to help them.

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