A major breakthrough in detecting eyesight problems in very young children has been made with revolutionary eye technology invented at the University of Auckland.
A camera reads tiny, involuntary movements of the eye - and the creators of the technology say it can help, on a global basis, identify vision problems which can lead to learning difficulties in young children.
Adam Podmore, CEO of Objective Acuity - a start-up company spun out of the University of Auckland's innovation ecosystem - hopes it will be used by optometrists and eye specialists around the world: "It addresses an unmet need, particularly in children; it's estimated one in five children have visual problems that are undetected and 80 per cent of learning happens through their eyes up to the age of 12.
"Detecting problems in children as early as possible means you have a much greater effect with treatment than if you treat them later," he says. "But because of its objective and automative nature, we believe the technology has a wide variety of uses across all age groups."
Identifying vision problems in babies and toddlers has long been a difficult and often stressful process. But the new technology can pick up childhood vision problems without children having to read a chart or identify pictures to get an accurate and reliable measurement.
While the initial focus is on improving eyesight outcomes in children, they are also looking to complement or replace traditional eye charts used in adult eye care.
The technology was invented by Dr Ben Thompson, an Associate Professor of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Auckland, who also has appointments at one university in Canada and Dr. Jason Turuwhenua, a research fellow at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. They were working on a study tracking the eye movements of two-year-olds to understand global motion perception - a measure of visual processing.
They came up with a visual system which detects a moving pattern and creates an involuntary eye movement called Optokinetic Nystagmus (OKN) - a reflex which allows our eyes to follow moving objects while our head stays steady, like watching telephone poles on the side of the road when travelling in a car.
"It's been known that OKN is a really good measure of how well someone sees. But until now no one has developed an objective measure of OKN," Podmore says.
With the new system, a child can sit on their parent's lap in front of screen watching a moving stimulus. If they can see the movement, it induces OKN, which is measured by a head and eye tracking device. Novel imaging processing algorithms extract the OKN image from the video footage of the subject's eyes.
"Eye charts are only good for a certain age, because you need language. With this technology, you don't need any communication at all and you don't have to hold the child's head still. It's completely objective," says Podmore.
Adults and children have been tested with early prototypes of the technology and, since the Auckland-based Objective Acuity began operating as a company in July, formal trials have begun to develop the product further. Thompson continues to work on the technology, along with Dr Turuwhenua.
Podmore expects the technology will be adopted globally by optometrists and ophthalmologists, with potential for school and pre-school screening programmes.
He became involved in the project when commercialising technology at Auckland UniServices, where the development of a proof-of-concept prototype was funded through the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment's PreSeed Accelerator Fund.
The ensuing start-up company has investment backing from UniServices, through the University of Auckland Inventors Fund, Powerhouse Ventures, and Callaghan Innovation.
The company has also had the assistance of the Return On Science national commercialisation programme at UniServices. Return On Science programme and commercialisation director Graham Scown says Objective Acuity is an "incredibly exciting" technology able to make a difference in a large market.
"It's a fantastic example of what we are doing. We're not just picking up technology and flicking it off to corporates offshore. This is a start-up company with huge potential in a big market and it's on its way, through the efforts of central government and UniServices to make the best resources available to get it there," he says.
"We occasionally see novel technologies come through that are just solving the same problem in a different way. This one solves the current problem in a significantly better way."