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Anne Lewis, who is legally blind, has been testing the glasses. Unlike other products she has tried, they work while she is moving. ((Simon Gardner/CBC))

An Ottawa company is developing computerized glasses that help people with severe visual impairments see — as well as zoom in on and replay what they saw with the press of a button.

The company, eSight Corp., received a $500,000 grant from the Ontario government this week to develop its evSpex product as part of a special $4.5 million fund to help 10 start-up companies bring products to market.

The device, which resembles a pair of large sunglasses, has a high-resolution camera on the outside and tiny LCD screens on the inside that project images to the wearer's eyes.

Before the image is projected, it's custom-processed by a tiny computer, said company president Rob Hilkes.

"So that when it's presented to a person who has diseased eyes … it's presented to the pieces of their vision that are most functional," he added.

Réjean Munger, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute who helped develop the glasses, said that can help people with a variety of diseases.

"We can take advantage of every bit of vision they have," he said.

The company hopes to start commercial production next year.

Sister of company chairman inspiration for glasses

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The glasses have a camera in the front and LCD screens on the inside that transmit images to the eyes. They are customized to maximize a user's remaining vision. ((Simon Gardner/CBC))

Anne Lewis, who is legally blind as a result of Stargardt's disease, has been testing the prototype and is very excited about it.

"I see this product as a gift; I truly do," she said at the news conference announcing the funding.

Lewis is the sister of Conrad Lewis, eSight's chairman and one of the company's founders, and her disability was the inspiration for the glasses.

Stardgardt's disease is a form of macular degeneration that has destroyed Anne Lewis's sight except for her peripheral vision.

"It's like looking at a bubble and the inside of the bubble is black, the outside is clear," she said.

Lewis said using the glasses will allow her to read body language in meetings at work, stand on her deck and see flowers blooming, navigate shopping malls and flag down the right bus.

Unlike other products she has tried, it works even while she is moving.

The product is expected to be able to help people with age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and retinitis pigmentosa.

Users can record, zoom

Because the device is essentially recording a loop of video at all times, it will include special functions that people with normal vision don't have. For example, the user can save the last 10 seconds of what they saw at the press of a button so they can have another look at something that went by too quickly. The video can also be viewed later on a DVD player or computer. In addition, they could zoom in on certain things in their field of view.

Hilkes said the features are available because the "inherent guts" of the device are a computer.

"Once you pack a lot of electronics into a system like this, then creative people start to think of all kinds of ways that you could use it," he said.

In the future, the company hopes to market the technology to people with normal vision as wearable binoculars, night vision goggles or video gaming devices.