Made in Israel: The eyes have it

Two Israeli-made apps are revolutionizing the field of vision.

Nimrod Madar. ‘We believe we can use our technology to develop a wide spectrum of products that can exploit the brain’s accelerated processing speed.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nimrod Madar. ‘We believe we can use our technology to develop a wide spectrum of products that can exploit the brain’s accelerated processing speed.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I research products for this column, I frequently find myself in awe of the ingenuity of the idea or concept. This month’s column features two products connected to vision, albeit from widely disparate angles. Both products induced that sense of awe, not only because of their originality, but because of the skill and creativity required to develop them.
Most people in their 40s suddenly realize they are holding the morning paper as far as their arms can stretch – at which point they usually opt for a pair of reading glasses. But now, neuroscientists have teamed up with optometrists to develop a mobile device app that eliminates the need for reading glasses and allows users to return their newspaper to a normal arm’s length.
Neuroscientist Prof. Uri Polat, a world leader in the field of vision, established Ramat Gan startup GlassesOff in 2007 with the aim of using neuroscience technology to improve vision functionality. According to company president and CEO Nimrod Madar, GlassesOff technology doesn’t change the way our eyes function, but improves the way our brain processes the information our eyes capture.
“It isn’t very intuitive to think about your brain when you consider how you see things; it’s natural to think about your eyes,” says Madar. “For hundreds of years, solutions for vision problems focused on how the eyes work. However, today we know that vision is predicated on two factors: the quality of the image captured by the eye, and the quality of the interpretation of that image by the brain. Our eyes are only a sensor that captures the light and sends it to the brain for processing.”
He explains that “if the information our eyes are capturing is blurred, our brain requires more time to process that information. The problem is that micro-movements of the eyes are continuous, so new information is being constantly sent to the brain for processing.
If the brain receives new information before it has completed the first batch, the image will be blurred.
Once we grasped that, we began to understand the potential of being able to process the blurred information faster and more efficiently.”
To improve the brain’s image-processing capabilities, GlassesOff developed an app with a gaming mechanism to make training interesting for people to use. The sessions are designed to stimulate the visual system in the brain, the visual cortex, and provide feedback on improvement in reaction time, processing and speed. The brain, which has an extraordinary ability to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body, is constantly challenged throughout the sessions.
Users complete an initial evaluation, which is forwarded to the company’s servers. There, the data are analyzed, and customized training sessions and goals are defined accordingly. Users can complete the program within two to three months of exercising, using the app three times a week. Compatible with both Android and iPhone mobile devices, each session lasts about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the user’s individual rate and rhythm.
“Each time the user responds to one of the visual tasks, we analyze and process the data and build the next session based on the user’s progress,” says Madar.
“And when they reach their goal, they can get rid of their reading glasses.”
However, there is a limit to the brain’s ability to compensate for eye function.
“We focus on people between the ages of 40 and 60 because various studies have shown that 90 percent of people who completed the three-month program can totally eliminate their dependency on reading glasses,” he explains.
“This success rate is lower with people in their 70s and 80s; we can improve their vision to allow them to read phone numbers or a newspaper in good light, but not enough to eliminate the need for glasses entirely.”
Contact-lens wearers can use the technology, as can people who have undergone laser surgery to rid themselves of myopia (nearsightedness) only to discover that encroaching age can bring problems of presbyopia (farsightedness).
GlassesOff is the company’s first product, but its technology can be applied to develop other products that involve taking visual cues and responding to them in a speedy and focused way.
Asserts Madar, “We believe we can use our technology to develop a wide spectrum of products that can exploit the brain’s accelerated processing speed. For example, you can read faster because your brain is processing the information more quickly. Think about a kid playing a sport, such as tennis or baseball. If he is processing the visual information faster, less time is required to analyze the visual event, allowing him more time to make a decision on how to respond and complete the motion, significantly improving his skills in baseball, tennis, martial arts or any other sport.”
In 2015, the company will launch a dedicated sports app, focusing on different sports activities for professional athletes or for any kid who wants to improve his game.
Download from Price: Monthly fee, $9.99; three months, $24.99
Three years ago, Nissan Yaron, CEO and founder of Inpris, concluded that tapping text into touch screens using the conventional QWERTY keyboard was cumbersome and non-intuitive.
“You’re bound to make mistakes tapping a touch screen, even if you’re looking at it,” he says. “So I began to think of a totally different approach where we can use our fingers as the keyboard itself.”
Yaron developed a technology that supports a gesture-based keyboard, called UpSense, a smartphone and tablet app that offers a solution for the visually impaired.
The UpSense keyboard can identify 16,000 gestures using the fingers of only one hand. Using the same gesture with different fingers, partially sighted to totally blind users can easily type text, including Braille (using two hands), into smartphones and tablets.
According to Yaron, the QWERTY keyboard has been around for 140 years. “Believe it or not, the QWERTY keyboard was introduced because it was the least convenient way to type.
If people typed too fast, the machine stuck, so [typewriter designers] created an inconvenient layout that would slow the typist down, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.”
Enlisting help from his father, a programmer with extensive experience in creating innovative systems, Yaron’s technology allows the user’s fingers to create patterns that represent characters on the keyboard. For example, swiping the middle three fingers in a downward motion on the screen represents an M, or swiping the same three fingers to the right of the screen represents an E.
“We took our idea to investors, but we were ahead of our time; people were just beginning to adapt to touch screens and here we were saying that tapping the screen is not good enough, here is something more innovative.
But they didn’t get it,” he says.
Undaunted, the father-son team continued to develop their product, and at a certain point decided to focus on users who were vision-impaired.
“We consulted with US companies that were producing software for the vision impaired, and they told us that we had developed a very strong tool and that even we didn’t fully appreciate what we had in hand. One CEO suggested we add Braille to it, which was not a problem because our technology allows anything that relates to distinguishing between fingers. Braille is like playing piano; if you can distinguish between fingers, then you can type Braille.”
Visually impaired users typing Braille operate the UpSense keyboard by placing eight fingers on the screen, which understands the basic ergonomics of the hand and knows how to identify the location of each of the fingers.
The screen displays eight circles calibrated to the location of the fingers.
The user then types standard Braille, and the software gives audio feedback while the user types.
When in Help mode, the software audibly describes how to input data.
Sophisticated algorithms enable the screen to follow the fingers, so even if the blind user touches the screen outside the circles, the screen can recalibrate and the circles adjust to the fingers’ new location.
Says Yaron, “We’re collaborating with the School for the Blind in Jerusalem and have held a number of focus groups with blind users working with a tablet. We learned a lot just from observing them.”
Sighted users can also enjoy using this technology.
“I can type A, B, C and D with each finger, just once,” he says. “Other characters use motion, like three fingers down for M, three fingers up for W. It’s not so difficult remember.
There are some characters, circular ones such as O, P, Q, R, G, and S, that are less intuitive to remember, but users can customize their characters settings to fingers and motions that he or she can remember. And you can do all the typing with one hand while you are holding the tablet in the other, and you don’t need to look at the screen.”
According to Yaron, “it takes an adult about half an hour to an hour to learn the entire alphabet, and a day or two of practice to type quickly. We’ve tested it with sighted kids, who catch on very quickly because they’re less committed to the QWERTY keyboard.”
Technology that allows you to interact with devices using finger identification and motion offers the possibility of numerous apps. Yaron describes some of the other apps due for launch in the near future, such as the finger- controlled screen lock, as well as others still in the planning stages.
“In cars, for example, one finger controls the air conditioner, another finger the radio, yet another to open and close windows,” he says. “You put your finger on the radio screen, and a downward movement decreases the volume; to the right, it changes the station. The possibilities are endless.”
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The writer has worked for over 20 years in hi-tech. If you have a question about any of the products featured in this column or have developed a product you’d like to share, contact