MIT develops cell-phone-based eye test, especially suited for developing world

June 25, 2010
Cambridge, MA--MIT has developed a quicker, simpler, and cheaper eye test that uses a small plastic device clipped onto the front of a cell phone’s screen.

Cambridge, MA--The Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a quicker, simpler, and cheaper eye test that uses a small plastic device clipped onto the front of a cell phone’s screen. Especially in the developing world, the device could replace the large device called a phoropter, fitted with dozens of different lenses that can be swung into place in front of each eye in various combinations, while the patient tries to read a standard eye chart on the wall ahead. It could also replace a second, more expensive system called an aberrometer that shines a laser into the eye and uses an array of tiny lenses to measure its characteristics, with no interaction from the patient.

According to the World Health Organization, uncorrected refractive errors are the world’s second-highest cause of blindness, affecting some 2% of the world’s population, and two billion people have refractive errors; all these people are potential beneficiaries of the new system. The team is preparing to conduct clinical trials, but preliminary testing with about 20 people and objective tests using camera lenses has shown that it can achieve results comparable to the standard aberrometer test.

In its simplest form, a small plastic device is clipped onto the screen of a cell phone. The patient looks into a small lens and presses the phone’s arrow keys until sets of parallel green and red lines just overlap. This is repeated eight times, with the lines at different angles, for each eye. The whole process takes less than two minutes, at which point software loaded onto the phone provides the prescription data. The device is described in a paper by MIT Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, Visiting Professor Manuel Oliveira, and Media Lab student Vitor Pamplona (lead author of the paper) and postdoctoral research associate Ankit Mohan, that will be presented in late July at the annual computer-graphics conference SIGGRAPH.

“People have tried all kinds of things, some very clever,” as possible replacements for the heavy and expensive conventional eye-testing systems, says Mohan. “The key thing that differentiates ours is that it doesn’t require any moving parts.” The technology takes advantage of the huge improvements over the last few years in the resolution of digital displays and their widespread proliferation on cell phones, even in some of the world’s poorest countries--there are now some 4 billion cell phones in the world. Apart from the software to run on the phone, all that’s needed is the snap-on plastic device, which Mohan says can be produced at a cost of about $1 to $2 today but could cost only a few cents in large quantities.

The prototype system Raskar and his students developed as a result of that insight has an array of tiny lenses and a grid of pinholes that, combined with the software on the phone, “forces the user to focus at different depths” so the eye’s focusing ability can be measured. Essentially, Raskar explains, the test works by transforming any blurriness produced by aberrations in the eye into an array of separate lines or dots instead of a fuzzy blob, which makes it easier for the user to identify the discrepancy clearly. Rather than estimating which of two views looks sharper, as in conventional eye tests, the user adjusts the display to make the separate lines or dots come together and overlap, which corresponds to bringing the view into sharp focus. The underlying principle is similar to that used by new “adaptive optics” systems that have recently allowed ground-based telescopes to exceed the performance of the Hubble Space Telescope; these sometimes use the same kind of Shack-Hartmann sensors used in eye testing aberrometers.

The team will be field-testing the device in the Boston area this summer and will later test it in developing countries. The team already has applied for a patent on the system, named NETRA (Near-Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment), and team members won a prize this year in MIT’s annual IDEAS competition--a contest for inventions and business ideas that have a potential to make a significant impact in the developing world--and were finalists in the 2010 student-run MIT $100K Business Plan Competition.

Chika Ekeji, a student at the MIT Sloan School of Management who joined the team to help with commercialization of the system, says the group plans to launch production of the device as a for-profit company called PerfectSight, initially targeting parts of Africa and Asia. Ultimately, they also hope to produce a more advanced version that can incorporate its own higher-resolution display and be able to detect other conditions such as cataracts, which could be sold in the developed world as well.


--Posted by Gail Overton; [email protected];

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