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Fixing bad eyesight with the power of video games

The Diplopia game seen using Oculus Rift.
Source: Oculus Rift
The Diplopia game seen using Oculus Rift.

Since the Oculus Rift first made strides with its successful Kickstarter campaign, there has been an influx of gaming developers trying to apply virtual reality's prospects to real-world problems.

Diplopia is one such virtual reality game from San Francisco. The game, which is still in beta testing, is designed to help people with lazy eye (amblyopia) and crossed eye (strabismus). It recently closed a $700,000 seed round, led by SOS Ventures.

While many will tell you that playing video games are bad for your eyes, the founder, James Blaha, fixed his own lazy eye with the game he invented with Manish Gupta.

Already, they have over 300 beta testers around the world—many of which are using the Diplopia software under the direction of their eye doctor.

"It's a strange experience for the world to appear more real and to have your vision change in such a big way," says Blaha, who was born with lazy eye and lived his life in a flat world, seeing only in two dimensions. He was told the condition was irreversible, until he developed a video game to strengthen his weaker eye with Oculus Rift.

Until now, conventional therapy often relies on patching the dominant eye to increase the vision of the weak eye, but many times patients regress when patching is discontinued and may remain stereo-blind, or the inability to see in 3-D.

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"Diplopia's approach is therapy with both eyes opened, which allows patients to gain binocular vision while increasing their acuity of the amblyopic eye," said Dr. Tuan Tran, Diplopia's advising doctor, who is currently coordinating a pilot study at Michigan College of Optometry. He added, "some people will experience 3-D for the first time after using Diplopia after the first time."

The virtual reality game allows doctors to control what the patient sees on each screen and trains those with crossed-eye problems to coordinate their eyes by manipulating contrast; players score well when their brain merges two images into a complete scene.

Though results vary on an individual basis, regular game play could noticeably improve eyesight for adults who previously had little hope of recovering their depth perception, Blaha said.

The team is currently working with ophthalmologists at the University of California, San Francisco on getting a formal pilot study started to validate the efficacy of its software. Gupta says that in the future, patients will have the option to play at home or under a doctor's supervision.

"The game is not meant to cut out the need for doctors, but rather give them another tool to help treat amblyopia/strabismus," he said.

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Though the founders have not disclosed a price, they say Diplopia will sell significantly cheaper than the current tech solutions out there and will launch in the beginning of next year. Diplopia not only works on the visual system, but also integrates other areas such as eye-hand coordination by using a hand motion device. This helps to integrate all the senses.

Still, some doctors are skeptical. Dr. Sami Kamjoo, a retina surgeon in Irvine, California, says that vision therapy has been tried for strabismus and amblyopia, but medical literature does not support the thesis that a video game can help these patients.

"While it is an interesting idea, it may mislead people that can be helped by surgery or other medical intervention into thinking that they can be treated by a video game," Kamjoo said. "This can lead to delay in treatment and possible poor outcomes for some patients."

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Despite concerns, Arvind Gupta, who is a partner at SOS Ventures and lead investor of Diplopia, believes that this game will revolutionize the market, and that the company is already at revenue with presale from its beta kit, which sold on Indiegogo.

"We will fundamentally change many people's lives for the better," said Arvind Gupta, who is not related to the Diplopia co-founder. "That's big enough for me. I believe that this is a $500 million business, at minimum, based on 3 percent of the population that have lazy eye and what people are willing to do to solve this."

As the company grows, he added, Diplopia "will continue to develop new products around this focus and revolutionize what vision is for people in the long run through virtual reality."