Miraculous High-Tech Glasses Could Help Millions See Better

February 06, 1997

CHAPEL HILL -- Her new glasses are no miracle, but don't try telling that to Jenna Meck, a visually impaired 21-year-old junior at Meredith College in Raleigh. She says the battery-powered, self-focusing, computer-controlled telescopic glasses are the next best thing.

"These are just tremendously helpful," Jenna said. "I am excited because they are changing my life already, and I just got them.' For the first time, she can see to read the blackboard at school. In the past, that was frustrating because she had to hold a real telescope to her face and put it down each time she took notes.

Also for the first time, she can see her mother and father from farther away than just a few inches. She can recognize teachers and friends. Born with a detached retina in her left eye and a coloboma -- the visual equivalent of cleft palate -- in her right, the young woman has always been nearly blind. She could see well enough from her right eye to keep up with school with the help of magnifying glasses and the telescope, but not well enough to see people's faces and countless objects.

Enter Dr. Henry Greene, clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. After almost seven years, Greene and engineer Robert Beadles of Durham, in collaboration with original inventor Dr. Russ Pekar of Chapel Hill, have developed the world's first self-focusing telescopic glasses for the visually impaired.

"We estimate these glasses could help several million visually impaired people in the United States alone," said Greene, who runs UNC-CH's vision rehabilitation program. "We are really proud of them and excited about the results."

The high-tech spectacles, which resemble a small camera perched atop an almost standard pair of eyeglasses, are called the Ocutech VES AutoFocus Telescope. It works by reflecting an infrared beam off an object, a person or whatever the wearer looks at directly. The beam triggers the world's smallest commercially available stepper motor -- weighing only a sixth of an ounce -- to focus the lens almost continuously via a computer chip.

To minimize the problem of limited field of view, the eyepiece for the telescope is built onto magnifying glasses. Self-focusing eliminates the tiresome problem of having to sit an exact distance from a computer screen, for example, or holding a book inches from one's nose.

The National Institutes of Health and the Ontario (Canada) Ministry of Health supported development of the glasses, which cost about $1 million over the seven years and so far works with a single eye, Greene said. Because of its sophisticated innards, the device costs $3,000, but weighs only two and a half ounces.

He and his colleagues are working on a binocular version.

"We have had inquiries from all over the country, from Russia, from Malaysia, Honduras, many places," he said. "In my 20-odd years of dealing with people who are visually impaired, this has been the most well-received and successful device I have ever encountered. It will not work for everyone, such as people whose vision problem does not respond to magnification, but we know it will work for many people."

Tom Vernasco, 29, of Cary, N.C., is a Holiday Inn reservations agent. Born severely near-sighted, he bought a pair of the new glasses just before Christmas.

"I no longer have to use special large print programs at work," Vernasco said. "At home, I can go shopping by myself now if I want to, and I can almost see well enough to drive. I have never seen any visual device as good as this, and I want everybody to know about it. It is remarkable!"

Thomas Aldridge, 72, of Concord, N.C., started going blind from macular degeneration a decade ago. For the past four years, the former insurance agent has had to sit within two feet of a television screen to watch and has been unable to watch birds and squirrels eat the food he puts out for them.

"Now, I can see the birds and squirrels again, which is one of the joys of my life, and I can even recognize faces and read words on the television eight to 10 feet away," Aldridge said. "These glasses are not for everybody, but for some of us, they are absolutely miraculous."

Note: Greene can be reached at (919) 493-7456, Beadles at 383-8794. Photographs of Jenna Meck with the glasses are available by calling Dan Sears at News Services. Aldridge's number is (704) 782-7903, Meck's is (919) 846-6941 and Vernasco's is (919) 319-1069.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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