It is easy to take good eyesight for granted. You open your eyes and there’s the world. You navigate your way around your home and your job; you gaze into the eyes of loved ones, you read, you enjoy entertainment.
But, for 2.2 billion people around the world, visual impairment is a life-altering condition, causing social isolation and impacting standards of living and financial health. And, according to a 2019 Report on Vision from the World Health Organization, at least half of those cases were preventable.
Blindness poses an enormous financial burden worldwide, with WHO estimating productivity losses to be $411 billion annually. The growth of an aging population is expected to increase the numbers of people with serious vision impairment in coming years.
According to the WHO, the leading causes of vision impairment are uncorrected refractive errors of the cornea and lens (in which the eye cannot focus light from distance objects on the retina) and cataracts. The majority of those with vision impairment are over age 50, but vision loss can impact people of all ages. And, unfortunately, there’s a gap in connecting efforts to achieve health equity and strengthen human rights for people aging with vision loss.
The good news is, the future of blindness is brighter than it has ever been. A pair of startups working with Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE Lab are among the visionaries creating new medical procedures and adaptive technologies to address the structural barriers limiting the opportunities for visually-impaired people.
In Romania, .lumen is taking tech from driverless cars and putting it into a wearable headset the startup hopes could replace white canes and guide dogs. Meanwhile in Israel, CorNeat Vision is manufacturing biomimetic corneal implants that restore full vision potential for candidates without relying on donor implants.
.lumen: improving mobility for people who are blind
Growing up in Romania, Cornel Amariei saw firsthand how his parents and sister lived with disabilities that severely limited their mobility. It is that personal experience that led the entrepreneur to found .lumen, a start-up dedicated to improving mobility for visually impaired people.
Since launching in 2020, .lumen has grown to employ more than 50 engineers, professors, disability experts and scientists. The goal of the company is to move beyond the two most common solutions for mobility used for hundreds of years: the white cane and the guide dog.
“The white cane can only tell you there is an obstacle; it can’t tell you anything about how to go around the obstacle,” said Amariei, the co-founder and CEO. “Guide dogs are universally seen as a great solution, unfortunately there are a few drawbacks. Training one costs between $30,000 and $60,000 and it is a big responsibility for a blind person to provide care. It is not a scalable solution.”
In response, Amariei’s team has created wearable tech that mimics the actions of a guide dog or human companion, allowing the user to navigate familiar and unfamiliar places, locate objects and to live a more independent life. The .lumen glasses, which uses technology pioneered by autonomous driving and robotics, take the user where they want to go, even places they have never been.
“You can ask the guide dog to take you to the door or to an empty seat, or if they know the route, to take you back home and the guide dog would do this by pulling your hand, avoiding obstacles, keeping you on sidewalks, stopping at the door,” Amariei said. “You can ask the .lumen glasses exactly the same command, but rather than pulling your hand as a guide dog does, it actually pulls your head.”
The .lumen headset contains sensory and feedback systems necessary for understanding the environment, and communicates instructions to the user. To use the glasses, the wearer puts them on and either presses a button or uses voice interface to use a “take me” menu of options or “guide me” mode, depending on how familiar the user is with the route they intend to take. A set of six cameras determine the user’s position in the environment and other contextual information. The feedback system uses audio and haptic feedback to transmit information to the user.
“You can ask ‘guide me’ and just go and the device will keep you safe, keep on the sidewalk, stop at a crossing, help you not bump into anything,” he said. “A lot of blind people already know the routes in their minds, but they don’t know what the obstacles are or if there will be people passing. The device in ‘guide me’ mode will help make sure they will not hit anything and they will be safe.”
Additionally, the user can say “take me to the closest bar,” and the device, like any smartphone, will search for the closest bar, coffee shop or restaurant, and it will take them there. If you ask it to take you to the closest chair, it will do that as well. It can read a document, search Google or Apple maps and describe a scene through audio interface, creating a universal device that provides a wide range of services allowing for greater independence for the blind user.
As a start-up company, Amariei’s team used SOLIDWORKS as its main mechanical design and simulation tool. The 3DEXPERIENCE Lab accelerator program has been a great asset in helping the company boost their business with solutions and support, Amariei said.
“We are a software startup, which by accident, must have a hardware product. If there were some glasses we could just program, that’s what we would do, but there weren’t, so we had to build them,” he said. “As a small company, when we saw that we could have access to support and software solutions that only the biggest companies on earth have access to, we said, ‘ok, we want this.’”
CorNeat Vision: building better implants with biomimetics
Another company improving the life of the visually impaired with the help of Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE Lab is CorNeat Vision, an Israeli biomimetic implants and technology company. Their flagship product is an artificial cornea that enables corneally-blind patients regain full vision potential without relying on donor tissue.
Founded by Dr. Gilad Litvin, an ophthalmologist specializing in retinal surgery and Almog Aley-Raz, an engineer and entrepreneur, CorNeat Vision also addresses, among other things, the issue of access to treatment for corneal blindness around the world.
The cornea, Dr. Litvin, company chairman and chief medical officer, explained, is “the front windshield of our eye,” that focuses light on the retina. Once it is damaged, injured or diseased, it needs to be replaced, which requires access to donor tissue. However, in many cases, the patients are not good candidates for transplantation, the transplanted tissue is rejected, the wait for donor tissue stretches on for years, or tissue is not available at all.
Globally, the inability to connect patients with suitable donor tissue is a huge contributor to blindness, according to Aley-Raz, the CEO and vice president of research and development.
There are about 70 patients in line for every one that receives a cornea globally, and about 55% of humanity lives in countries with zero access to tissue, either because culturally it is unacceptable or because there aren’t any corneal surgeons in various parts of the world,” said Aley-Raz. “Fifty-five percent of humanity that becomes blind due to corneal disease will stay blind, even though this is preventable blindness.”
The synthetic cornea, named CorNeat KPro, created by CorNeat Vision integrates with resident tissue of the eye and replaces the damaged cornea to rehabilitate the sight of the patient. The material used in the synthetic cornea is “the only non-degradable material that integrates with live tissue for life,” Aley-Raz said.
While the body can often reject transplanted tissue, either by expelling or encapsulating it, the material embeds in tissue and becomes part of the body, “replacing or augmenting local tissue.” Aley-Raz equates it to the metal mesh in a concrete wall: “Once integrated, it becomes part of the infrastructure.”
The surgical procedure is simpler than a donor transplant, Aley-Raz said, and vision rehabilitation is immediate.
“In the West, we see it selling as the second line of treatment, for failed or non-candidates for transplantation. The idea is to gradually displace the need for tissue,” he said.
The company uses SOLIDWORKS for product and manufacturing design, and welcome the support and access to additional tools available at the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab as they scale their operation and establish a manufacturing facility.
“We feel like a baby in a toy store,” Aley-Raz said. “Of course we are using the engineering tools, but also the manufacturing line. We leverage Dassault Systèmes’ infrastructure, the simulation, robotic movement, mechanical engineering, to assist with the engineering of this. We use the metadata to run our clinical trials. They also provide the services, customized the system for trials and do joint marketing.”
“Our end game,” Litvin said, “Is to give people the ability to implant something that immediately rehabilitates their vision, does not cause pain and is aesthetically pleasing.”
What’s next? Vision for the future of blindness
In terms of predicting the future of blindness, both Amariei and Litvin said they expect technology will lead to better treatments, better access and better technology to improve day-to-day living, with more mobility, independence and fulfilment.
“Maybe we won’t be able to solve all of the disease processes, but I am sure we will be able to improve the independence of many disabled people,” Litvin said. “If we can make their lives easier, simpler, help them be more independent and feel more control over life, that will be a big difference, and we’re going that way.”
For Amariei, advancements in technology go hand-in-hand with advancements in inclusivity. He’s encouraged by the accelerating rate of progress in each.
“I spent the last 30 years surrounded by people with disabilities and I’ve seen how technology changed tremendously,” Amariei said. “Ten years ago, people with disabilities couldn’t even dream of what they can do today.”
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