Nova Scotia

How virtual reality may dramatically change eye tests, research

A team at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax is looking at eye testing in a new way thanks to an experiment with virtual reality.

Eye clinics have depended on the same testing techniques for 6 decades, says IWK Health Centre specialist

Ryan Cameron is working with specialists to develop virtual reality programming that could be adapted to many medical fields. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

A team at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax is looking at eye testing in a new way thanks to an experiment with virtual reality.

The eye clinic works with patients ranging from infants to adults and depends on the subjective responses from patients to help with a diagnosis. That can make their work tricky, especially when small children are expected to undergo exams that can routinely run an hour long.

Dr. Darren Oystreck, an orthopist at the hospital who also works with the health faculty at Dalhousie University, estimated his profession has used the same tests for six decades to check for disorders of binocular vision or eye alignment issues.

"You compare it to other areas of medicine where they've had amazing breakthroughs in technology in some of the things they can imagine now and the data they can collect is mind-boggling," he said.

Oystreck uses equipment like flashlights, pictures and foggy goggles to conduct his work and keep the kids focused.

Dr. Darren Oystreck says his field hasn't evolved in decades, and the new virtual reality system could bring dramatic change to the way patients are tested. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Last year, his team decided it was time to look for new options. That's when they met Ryan Cameron, the CEO of Electric Puppets, a Halifax-based virtual reality company that specializes in children's programming.

"Everything [Oystreck] needed could be applied to many other areas, like brain injury research," he said.

Cameron has adapted the old vision tests to a virtual reality program.

For the team at the IWK eye clinic, the collaboration allows the eye doctors to alter settings and try a wider range of scenarios, all while recording the reaction of a patient's eyes.

The hope is that for children in particular, it will lead to more accurate observations.

Specialists can monitor and record the reactions of a patient's eyes while testing them through a new virtual reality program. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

"They can calm down and relax and feel familiar with the environment quickly and then we can start to put them through the classic tests," said Oystreck.

The program is being tested and studied at the hospital. The team needs to prove the results are just as accurate — if not more accurate — as the old tests, and they'll produce a peer-reviewed study.

Steve Van Iderstine, a research associate at the IWK, said virtual reality systems weren't designed for medical use, but they have great applications for that.

"I'm hoping in a year from now we'll have good data to demonstrate that the virtual reality version of these tests has strong validity, then we'll be able to look forward to the more exciting environments that we can generate with the virtual reality," he said.

Steve Van Iderstine says the IWK Health Centre is making sure the research backs their belief that the virtual reality system gives more accurate results than traditional eye testing. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Cameron said those environments, for example, could be a virtual circus where kids would have the impression they're playing a game, when in fact they're being tested.

Van Iderstine said because virtual reality systems are commercially available, they're far cheaper than medical equipment. They also take up less space.

He hopes headsets sized for small kids will soon be available.

For Cameron and his company, this program is just the beginning. They have a patent pending on their work, and they're hoping that virtual reality could be used in the treatment of everything from physiotherapy to psychology.

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About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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