Of the more than 4 billion people across the globe who require eyeglasses, more than half lack access to eye tests—but that’s something EyeNetra has set out to change. The company, a spinoff from research conducted in the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture group under the direction of associate professor of Media Arts and Sciences Ramesh Raskar, has come up with a smartphone-based alternative to traditional diagnostic tools.
The concept behind EyeNetra is to replace autorefractors—the diagnostic machines you see at the optometrist’s office that employ lasers and cost thousands of dollars—with an inexpensive device that capitalizes on user interaction and the high-res LCDs most of us carry around with us every day. The system, named NetraG, consists of a plastic shell into which you snap your smartphone, and a user-friendly app that guides you through tests measuring farsightedness, nearsightedness and astigmatism.
The core software—which utilizes the phone’s screen to evaluate the viewer’s accuracy at aligning colored lines—has not changed all that much since the project was born at the Media Lab, says EyeNetra CTO and Camera Culture researcher Vitor Pamplona. Nor has the optical science behind it: “We had some very good scientific predictions in the early days that remain true,” he says. The company’s recent development efforts have focused on fine-tuning the stability and comfort of the plastic attachment, which was originally conceived as monocular but is now configured to look much like binoculars, incorporating simple controls for interacting with the eye test. The prototype is fitted to the Samsung S4, but according to Pamplona the commercial release will be compatible with most smartphones.
As described above, NetraG could be a boon for those in the developing world who can’t make an appointment at a fully outfitted optometrist’s practice. Pamplona cautions, however, that the device generates measurements, not prescriptions. For that—in the US, at least—users still need a doctor’s imprimatur. Pamplona maintains that both patients and physicians will benefit from inexpensive, portable vision diagnostics. “What would you do if you could get instant access to accurate refractive measurements?” he queries. “Maybe check your daughter’s eyesight from time to time? Maybe experiment with eye exercises while checking if they are making any optical difference?” He continues: “If you are diabetic, you know that your refractive error may oscillate with certain treatments. Would you like to test every morning and then pick the correct pair of frames you need for the day? Or maybe you want to check your refractive errors during and after intense athletic activity, so you can have the opportunity to change your glasses to perform better.”
These possibilities notwithstanding, NetraG is likely to have the greatest initial impact in countries where a doctor’s involvement is not required to buy new glasses or contacts—a transaction that could happen directly via the app. One of the company’s clinical validation partners, the LV Prasad Eye Institute, is located in India, which has relatively relaxed regulations in this sphere when compared to the US. That’s where the first commercial release is likely to happen. Netra, it should be noted, means “eye” in Sanskrit (though it’s also a neat acronym for Near Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment).
The Prasad Institute and EyeNetra’s other clinical partner, New England College of Optometry in Boston, are a few weeks away from embarking on independent evaluation of the beta design. Curious individuals in the Boston area may make an appointment via email@example.com to try out the device firsthand at NECO or at EyeNetra’s Somerville headquarters.
Read more about the technology behind NetraG.
See recent coverage of EyeNetra in a BetaBoston roundup of medical accessories for your smartphone, and read more about the implications of EyeNetra for the health care industry in the MIT Technology Review.
Read more about Camera Culture director Ramesh Raskar’s research in the Spring 2014 “Discovery Issue” of MIT SPECTRVM (“Superhuman Vision”).
Update (8/4/2014): EyeNetra raises $4 million in new funding.