GlassesOff: new app delays the need for reading glasses

By teaching our brains to process blurred images, a new iPhone training software has already helped reduced the 'eye age' of volunteers from 50.5 down to 41.9 years.

A new app could help us overcome our inevitably degrading vision by teaching our brains to process blurred images.

GlassesOff will be launched on the iPhone next year, and it hopes to delay our need for optical aids by years and help older people ditch their reading glasses. New Scientist reports.

Presbyopia is a condition ubiquitous among people in their fifties and beyond. As we age, the lenses in our eyes lose elasticity and can’t readily adjust to focus on things close by. Hence, tired eyes, headaches, and reading glasses.

The app helps people compensate for deterioration in their eyes' ability to focus on nearby objects by training the brain to process the resulting blurred images. "We're using the brain as glasses," says Tel Aviv University’s Uri Polat, cofounder of Ucansi, which designed the software.

The software trains users to detect patters called Gabor patches (pictured above) – blurry lines created by varying a gray background. For example:

  1. The user will fixate on a white circle (or target) on the screen.
  2. That gives way to a rapid succession of different screens: some blank, some showing Gabor patches at different places on the screen.
  3. One of the blurry patches will appear where the circle was.
  4. The user must determine when in the sequence the pattern appeared at the initial target's position.

See a schematic here. As people become better at this, the software adapts to alter the orientation of the patterns, place them closer to the target, or speed up the flashy sequence.

After 40 training sessions with volunteers averaging 51 years old:

  • They could read more than 2 lines further down an optical chart held 15 inches from their eyes.
  • Reading speed increased by about 4 seconds per sentence. One page of the New York Times without glasses used to take over 12 minutes… with training, it takes 5.3 minutes.
  • That’s a reduction in ‘eye age’ from 50.5 to 41.9 years.

There were no differences in the eyes' ability to focus after the training. "Every single change is in the brain," Polat says. For instance, there's no square in this figure on the right (it's just 4 pies with slices cut out), but our brain perceives one.

The app will cost about $95, which covers an initial 3-month training period (15 minutes, 3 times a week). After that, there’ll be a small monthly fee for less-intensive maintenance training.

The work was described at the Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society meeting in San Francisco last month. Via New Scientist.

Images: GlassesOff / reading glasses by accent on eclectic

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