Blindness first crept up on Yvonne Felix when she was just seven years old. That’s when she was hit by a car that she never saw coming.
“I was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration,” says the now 36-year old mother of two, who is legally blind. “By the time I was 13, I lost whatever sight I had centrally. By my late teens and early 20’s I was using a cane and braille. It was very lonely and isolating.”
ESight 3, a visor-like headset that uses a high-speed, high-definition camera, has changed the way the world looks for Felix. Where she once saw blurry shadows, she now sees details, like the expression on a person's face.
“I can see everything, your eyes, that you’re smiling, the pattern on your blouse,” Felix describes as she demonstrates the new eSight 3 glasses in our offices in Oakland, Calif. last week.
Without the device, Felix — who now acts as a spokeswoman for the company — said looking at me sitting across from her was like seeing a blurry dark shadow, with no features or facial expressions. “It’s like there’s a drawing and you smudged your hands all over the pastels, like it’s just dark and all blurred together.”
The headset looks like a cross between a pair of everyday sunglasses and a set of virtual reality goggles. They’re big, but not obnoxiously huge, and fit over the wearer’s prescription glasses via a pair of elastic, magnetic bands. On the front is a 1080p camera that grabs a live video feed of everything in sight, pipes it down to a processing unit that tucks into a pocket or purse, then sends it back to a pair of OLED screens.
The person wearing the headset sees full color video images clearly, with no lag time, and can zoom in. He or she can also capture photos and video with the device.
Felix is one of some 300 million people around the globe living with low, or no, ability to see. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, 1.2 million Americans over the age of 40 are legally blind, and nearly 3 million have “low vision,” or visual acuity worse than 20/40.
The Canadian company behind the headset is trying to change that. “What’s really unique about this device,” eSight CEO Brian Mech explained, “is that it lets Yvonne instantly auto-focus between short-range vision like reading a book or texting on a smartphone, to mid-range vision, seeing faces or watching TV, to long-range vision, such as looking down a hallway or outside a window.”
Each person who uses eSight 3 can control color, contrast, focus, brightness and magnification (24X). “It’s worked for 70% of people who’ve tried it on and allowed people with traumatic eye injury, some forms of glaucoma, and [more than a dozen other] conditions to see instantly.”
Felix and about 1,000 other legally blind people in Canada and the United States have used earlier versions of the eSight electronic glasses since they first came out in 2012. A quick YouTube search provides dozens of videos of people as young as four and as old as 97 using eSight to see clearly for the first time, including Felix.
“It was was beautiful. It’s the type of thing that just burns in your mind. I remember seeing my husband smiling and holding our [infant] son. I could see my husband hadn’t shaved and had a beard. But seeing him smile was what...and my son’s faces...I had never experienced that before.”
The eSight 3 headset costs $9,995, which is down from the $15,000 original cost. Insurance companies don’t cover it. But Mech said that the company often finds a way to get the glasses into the hands of the people who need them, through fundraisers, grants and “the creativity of the human spirit.”
For that, Felix says she is forever grateful. “Being able to see is a place of being free. It’s truly freedom.”