GUELPH, Ont. – Computerized glasses developed by a Canadian company are causing a worldwide sensation thanks to a YouTube video of a legally blind woman in Guelph, Ont., who donned the goggle-like spectacles to gaze in wonder at her newborn son.
The video of 29-year-old Kathy Beitz wearing eSight’s high-tech glasses in her hospital bed has attracted more than 2.4 million views since it was posted on YouTube on Jan. 21 by her sister, Yvonne Felix. Both have a degenerative eye condition called Stargardt’s disease and have only about two per cent of full sight.
News organizations around the world have picked up the story, with coverage as far away as India, Malaysia, South America and Japan.
“It’s become a bit of a worldwide phenomenon,” Taylor West, eSight’s director of outreach, told the Ottawa Citizen. “The response has been truly incredible.”
At last count, West said, about 250 publications had picked up the story. “Just in the last couple of days, there’s been many thousands who have emailed us, saying they’d like a pair.”
eSight, which has offices in Toronto and Ottawa, began researching the computerized glasses about eight years ago. Commercial production began in the fall of 2013. About 140 people currently use the glasses, which sell for $15,000.
Company founder Conrad Lewis, a computer engineer, has two legally blind sisters who suffer from the same condition as Beitz.
“His thesis was, if technology can solve all these telecommunications problems, perhaps it could solve what he regarded as a greater problem, which was blindness,” West said.
How does eSight work?
eSight takes the input from a video camera mounted on your head and displays the image on what looks like a 60-inch TV screen right in front of your eyes. It’s hands-free: where you turn your head is what is displayed; and it all happens in real-time. You control the zoom and the contrast to make the best image for you.
Who can benefit from eSight eyewear?
eSight eyewear helps people with low vision and legal blindness with a variety of low vision conditions, including macular degeneration, Stargardt’s disease, ocular albinism, diabetic retinopathy, Leber’s optic neuropathy, cone-rod dystrophy and other low vision conditions. Visual performance is much more important than the specific diagnosis.
Today’s eSight eyewear is most effective for those with acuity between 20/60 and 20/400. It is not suitable for those with severe tunnel vision. eSight eyewear has been shown to be effective for people aged eight to 88, but seems to work best for those under 75 years old.
Beitz, who has been legally blind since age 11, has 20/400 vision, meaning she can barely read the largest “E” on an eye chart. Because of macular degeneration, she also has large blind spots that obliterate most of her vision. But after donning eSight’s glasses, her vision has been tested at 20/20.
She first tried the glasses last year when her sister Yvonne – who also wears them and now works for eSight – gave her a pair “to fool around with,” Beitz said in an interview. “I actually could see a cheque. I had never really seen what a cheque looks like. That’s how I knew it would work for me.”
When her son Aksel was born Dec. 10, her sister made sure she had the glasses so she could see her new baby. When they brought Aksel into her room after her caesarean section, “it was amazing, honestly. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I would be disappointed, if I wouldn’t be able to see him.”
But when she held him and saw his fingers and toes and “fine little features,” she was ecstatic. “I got to fall in love with him,” she said in the video.
“It was overwhelming because I got to recognize my husband and I in him. That was very special,” she said. And Aksel is thriving. “He’s a big and chubby baby now.”
The glasses have changed her life. Beitz can read stories to Aksel, and when she shops for clothing she can see the sizes and price tags. “I would have figured out a way to do it before, but now I don’t have to figure out a way. I just get to do it. And that is enormous.”
There are a few drawbacks. Beitz is unaccustomed to so much visual stimulation, so she gets headaches if she wears the glasses too much. As a result, she only wears them when she truly needs them.
The glasses aren’t covered by any public or private insurance, meaning that those who want them usually need to raise funds. eSight helps with that, West said.
Beitz also plans to raise funds for others, including a brother and another family member who need the glasses. “That’s the least I can do.”
Given the exploding demand, the company expects to expand production at its Kanata operation, which currently has only 10 employees. The response, West said, “is beyond our wildest dreams, We’re just blown away by how much people care about this story.”