Monday, June 28, 2010

Medical Controversy?: Better Vision Via New Barcodes?

I can still remember what it was like before I knew I needed glasses. Most things were just slightly fuzzy. To see things clearly they had to be very close. Just in front of my face was a good distance. At night every was even fuzzier.

Of course I didn't realize that this wasn't normal. Glasses changed everything. Things weren't vague and smeared. Even now when I get a new set of glasses that are the right strength for my slowly weakening eyes I'm reminded that I can make out leaves on trees when they are across the street. Glasses have made my life much easier. Something as simple as a two pieces of curved glass can change one's world.

There are a number of groups providing eye care and glasses for the third world. Third World Eye Care Society Canada is one group that collects old pair of eyeglasses and sends them to were they are still useful. ORBIS is a group treating preventable blindness around the world. ORBIS is also the group with the flying eye hospital.

One of the problems with delivering optical care in rural and rustic settings is the equipment required. How do you figure out what glasses someone needs. Carry a large box containing lenses and ask someone to stare at an eye chart as you try different strengths over and over? Bring in a complicated and expensive machine that does it with lasers? There should be an easier way.

Maybe there is an easier and cheaper way. The idea and concept behind it came from the idea of using camera blur to display barcodes. Yes barcodes via bokeh.

Bokeh you ask? It's the term for the circles of blur that appear on your camera from out of focus points of light. If you point your camera at a Christmas tree in a darkened room and override the autofocus you get a picture that evokes the whole idea of Christmas.

At MIT researchers realized that you could put an illuminated barcode behind a lens to make a small glowing red dot. When a camera takes an in focus picture all you see is a small glowing dot. When the camera is out of focus a pattern or barcode emerges in the blur. The researchers called it a Bokode.

One of the researchers demonstrated bokodes to his wife and realized that it might be possible to use the idea behind bokodes to develop an eye tester. The Near-Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment or NETRA may be the solution to providing eye tests almost anywhere for almost no cost.

I'd never have guessed that high tech barcodes for cameras would lead to inexpensive eye testing. If a device like this was available when I was younger I may have ended up with glasses years earlier. Which would have made life a little less fuzzy when I was growing up.

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