HIGH-TECH VISUAL AID COULD IMPROVE SIGHT FOR HUNDREDS BY 1995 By Marc Kusinitz If all goes well, hundreds of visually impaired people will see more clearly next year, thanks to high-tech goggles. The device, called the Low Vision Enhancement System, is available by prescription at the Wilmer Eye Institute. By this fall it will be distributed in seven cities; expanded distribution is expected in 1995. The LVES, pronounced "Elvis," is a battery-powered, high-tech visual aid developed by scientists at Wilmer in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Veterans Administration. The device is designed to enhance and compensate for low vision in people whose eyesight with conventional eyeglasses is worse than 20/100 in their better eye, but better than 20/800. "LVES does not fix vision or restore vision. Instead, it alters images to make them easier for people to see with the vision they still have," said Robert W. Massof, professor of ophthalmology and lead inventor. Dr. Massof also directs the Lions Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center at Wilmer. The less than 2-pound headset is fitted with three miniature, black-and-white video cameras. Two of the cameras, one over each eye, provide a normal 3-D view to observe what's happening in their environment. The third, more complex camera is used for seeing facial features, fine details of objects, distant objects, or for close-up, detailed work and reading. Controls built into a battery pack worn on the belt let the wearer adjust, contrast and magnify images from 1.5 to 10 times. The unit automatically compensates for changes in lighting to reduce glare in bright light. In addition to displaying images from the built-in video cameras, a cable connection lets the LVES become a personal large-screen display for input from televisions, video cassette recorders or computers. The device is currently available to selected patients in seven cities. Patients who wish to participate in the initial distribution program should have had experience using low-vision devices or have been in a low-vision program at a health-care or rehabilitation facility. "Now that the development and preliminary testing phases are completed, the next step is to refine our ability to evaluate patients who might benefit from the device," Dr. Massof said. "And we'll be expanding our program to train eye-care specialists and prescribe LVES. If all goes well, the LVES will be more generally available in 1995." Future LVES models will compensate for distorted vision and blind spots caused by diseases of the macula, the part of the retina of the eye responsible for sharp vision. Age-related macular degeneration, a major disease of the retina, is caused by the death of light-sensitive cells in the macula, which people use for detailed work, such as reading. They will also be able to compensate for rapid movement of disorienting, magnified images and to improve contrast that makes faces more easily recognizable. "Our engineers are experienced in building vision systems for the military, like the helmet-mounted displays that helicopter pilots used in Operation Desert Storm," said Brad Blankenship, president of the Minnesota-based Visionics Corp., which manufactures LVES. "To use such high technology for this uniquely peaceful, beneficial application is very satisfying." Most patients receiving the LVES will be fitted and trained at several VA medical centers. "The VA has the best programs in the United States for rehabilitating people who are blind or visually impaired," Dr. Massof said. The LVES is being manufactured and sold by Visionics on an exclusive basis worldwide. Hopkins owns the patent and holds equity in the company. The device, which costs $5,200, is registered with the Food and Drug Administration but not yet covered by Medicare, Dr. Massof said. As more units become available, the price is expected to be reduced.
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