Two Bay Area men invent device to help visually impaired people see again

Image 1 of 2

Three years ago, Frank Rios lost most of his eyesight, and much of his hope.

Complications from the Leukemia he'd been battling for several years caused his retinas to detach and his vision to fail. 

He could still see the outline of a person's face, but couldn't tell their eye color or make out their facial expressions. Reading a book or a document on the computer was out of the question. He could no longer see well enough to drive a car. 

The vision loss, he said, left him depressed, reclusive and desperate for help. That help came from his local ophthalmologist, who told Rios about a fairly new invention called IrisVision. 

"When I didn't think there was anything available there was,'' the 72-year-old said. 

Here's how the device works: Using a smartphone mounted to a headset, IrisVision provides a real-time view of the world and helps the user's brain access the parts of their eyes that still function properly. 

"It's presenting the information in a way that the functioning part of the eye provides enough information to the brain so that it can remap a complete picture,'' said Dr. Frank Werblin, the co-founder of IrisVision. 

The user must have some sight to use the technology, which Rios said has changed his life.

"All the things that I had experienced before I had the visual problems became clear again,'' said Rios. "When I looked out the window I could see the leaves and the clarity of them. When I watched TV I could see clarity in people's expressions, and most of all I could read on the computer." 

The start of IrisVision dates back to 2014. Werblin, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience for more than 40 years, was giving a talk at a vision conference and was having lunch with a conference attendee from the Foundation Fighting Blindness. 

The organization funds research for prevention, treatments and cures for retinal degenerative diseases, and the two men starting talking about the lack of a simple device to help people with low vision. 

The man offered Werblin an opportunity he couldn't pass up—funding for an invention to help those who have lost most, but not all, of their eyesight. That's a large group. Roughly 80 % of the world's population who are considered to be blind have some vision.

"I took on the project not knowing if I could succeed," said Werblin, who lives in Berkeley. "I felt like a graduate student. I was terrified. I had this funding and I kept thinking what if I can't do this and this poor guy has put all his money into this thing." 

Werblin forged ahead.

"I knew I was onto something, but I couldn't do it on my own,'' he said. "I needed a partner and I checked many mobile app developers in the Bay Area, and I found Ammad. The reason I chose Ammad is he was very competent, and it seemed that he was just as interested in helping people as he was in making money."

Ammad Khan is an engineer by training, has held leadership roles at bio-tech companies and has built technology and software solutions for companies such as Burger King and Mercedes-Benz. 

"To me, it was pretty baffling to find out that technology was not serving the visually impaired,'' said Khan, who lives in Pleasanton, where the company is based. "I've spent my life building technology and I found that the vision impaired technology was archaic, and people could really benefit from the technology I was already familiar with." 

A partnership was formed, and within 18 months they had a prototype. Just five years later, more than 3,000 people in the United States, Canada and Australia with glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration and other retinal degenerative diseases are using the IrisVision device with impressive results. 

Wives can see the expressions on their husband faces, children can see the blackboard at school and older people can once again watch TV and read a restaurant menu. 

"I can't describe how gratifying and satisfying that is,'' Werblin said. "We are able to take teenagers and send them back to school. We are able to take middle age people and put them back to work, and for older people put them back into a social context because they'd become isolated."