Friday, February 01, 2013

MagnaFlyer: New Tech Helping People with Central Vision Loss


For more than 20 years I’ve worked to harness the power of technology to do social good. One area I’ve had the pleasure to focus a great deal of time and energy on is helping to improve the lives of people with vision impairments. So for me, it was incredibly cool to be introduced to a new piece of technology that has a clever and (as far as I know) new approach to making information accessible to people with vision impairments. It’s called MagnaFlyer.

MagnaFlyer was developed with a large and specific audience in mind—individuals suffering from Macular Degeneration. Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of permanent impairment of fine or close-up vision among the elderly population. It is often called age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), though it also affects younger people in smaller numbers. The disease damages the light-sensitive nerve cells located in the center of the retina, resulting in sharp and central vision loss. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.8 million Americans aged 40 and older are affected by AMD and predict this number will reach close to 3 million in 2020.

One important thing to note is that a person with AMD generally retains enough peripheral vision for good orientation and mobility. Individuals with central vision loss can therefore maximize their vision through a corrective technique called eccentric viewing. It is a method by which the person looks slightly away from the subject so as to view it using his or her peripheral sight. The rod cells in the intact peripheral visual field can then take over for the cone cells in the damaged central visual field. This is a complex biological task that’s difficult to self-teach: it requires the eyes and the brain to learn a new method of seeing, which means acquiring new habits and skills. Adopting eccentric viewing is thus best accomplished by working with a trained low vision therapist. And this is where the MagnaFlyer comes in.

In essence, MagnaFlyer displays a sequence of single words in the sweet spot of peripheral vision for the person with macular degeneration. Let’s say that the place where the user’s peripheral vision works best is below and to the right of the center of their visual field. So, the software gets them to focus their eyes at the upper left hand corner of the computer’s screen, and then shows the word to be read in the middle of the screen. If the user shifted their focus to the middle of the screen, they wouldn’t be able to see the word, because their central vision is damaged. But by focusing above and to the right, they can read the word in the middle of the screen (but off to the side of the center of their gaze). Denny Moyer, Executive Director of Colorado-based Ensight Skills Centers for Low Vision Rehabilitation, who introduced me to MagnaFlyer, told me that users can read a given amount of text several times faster by having the words rapidly flash by in this way, when compared to traditional approaches to reading the same text.

Of course, text is pretty universally accessible on computers, so you can read text from all sorts of sources (like word processor documents, PDFs, web pages). Probably my most favorite part of the MagnaFlyer demonstration was easily cutting and pasting a Bookshare ebook I downloaded into the application and seeing it read it (it was a Creative Commons licensed book—so completely legal!).

MagnaFlyer was developed through collaboration between SoftOlogy IdeaWorks, a technology invention company that develops computer technology to help people accelerate the acquisition of knowledge, and an Ensight team of low vision specialists. I was quite taken with MagnaFlyer’s smart approach to using a person’s available vision more effectively! As MagnaFlyer moves forward, our team at Benetech is looking forward to supporting Ensight in adding Bookshare books as part of the MagnaFlyer training program and bringing up the application to even more people who could benefit from it.

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