NIN: If you were sitting on an airplane and the person sitting next to you asked what you do, how would you explain it?
Nate: We develop devices for low-vision and no-vision people. We make things to restore vision for low-vision, for people that have tunnel vision, or retinitis pigmentosa, or glaucoma, or whatever. We've developed a visor that's people can put on and restore their vision to normal sight. It shrinks the world down to their tunnel vision field of view, so that they can get a better image, so they can regain the sight that they lose from having no peripheral vision. And that's what the RP visor's for. And then, the Visor Mark II, that's the one for those who have no sight at all, it reproduces the electrical impulse they would normally get from the eye by capturing the information via the three-dimensional sensor, and vibrating the zygomatic arch to represent that information with sound into the inner cochlea, without cutting off normal hearing.
Wow. Is that invasive or non-invasive?
Non-invasive, non-surgical. The visual information that's captured by the 3D-sensor ends up in the visual cortex, so, it's not exactly like sight yet, but it’s a good representation of, like, blobs of people, in color. It helps with proximity and shows distance, so, in a normal situation where people have a cane that operates over a meter or a meter-and-a-half in distance, this goes about 20 feet, and produces a lot more information than people would normally get.
Very cool. And for people with tunnel vision, you've already tested this?
Yeah. This is ready to go, we have a video I can show you of people who have RP, testing it out. It's kind of like watching a cat trying to get its bearings in a moving vehicle for the first time somebody uses it but, once they get it, it's like them seeing for the first time.
Who was the first person you gave it to?
The first person I gave it to was a guy named Noah. He was a person that I met at a summer camp, and he was my boss at this camp that I worked at. And he was the first person to actually physically put these on and then try it out, and he confirmed that they worked to his specifications. This is the new version of it.
How did that make you feel?
It was great. It's really heartwarming to see this person use it for the first time. I originally developed the visor for people who are completely blind but I realized that was the wrong solution for people that still retained some vision. The RP visor was designed so that people who had tunnel vision, glaucoma, those kinds of things, could see normally. And it solves problems with night-blindness glare issues, and then it’s also been talked about to experiment with pilots that have experienced tunnel vision in tailspins solving problems with color, certain types of color blindness but the the benefit of, of going to this model from the earlier version is, this is now wireless and self-contained. I guess blind people have a big problem with wires.
Are you using existing tools and then putting them together, or are you creating everything from scratch?
This uses existing technologies and puts them all together to make one design. The next phase will be a manufactured product that's smaller, more efficient and lasts longer. This battery only lasts for three hours. I’d like to make a version that lasts at least six hours so that, you know, people can use it recreationally if they want to, or if they need to, to have a better quality of life.
What, what inspired you to get into this space in the first place?
What inspired me was my grandfather. He had RP and it sort of robbed him of the latter years of his life. He couldn't mix drinks anymore, he couldn't do the things that he used to, and it really reduced his quality of life down to a crawl. And he died before I was able to get these done, but I found other people who have the same condition and they're benefiting from it, and I'd like to have everybody that has a similar condition be able to benefit from it.
That's awesome. That must feel incredibly rewarding, knowing that it works.
Yeah, it’s definitely heartwarming to be able to create something and solve a problem that people have. But it's not until you actually see somebody put it on for the first time that you can really get those warm fuzzies, when you somebody that has that look on their face, knowing that their life is never gonna be the same again.
This is the new, remodeled version. The previous version of this guy had cords that came off it and had a small battery pack and a camera that sat on top. This version's much more sleek in its design as far as the wireless tracking system goes and it’s all self-contained. Later versions, hopefully, will get it all much smaller and much, much better for people to use, much more obtainable.
If you could solve a problem outside of this, completely, if there was some other topic that you could tackle what would it be?
I've done a lot of research into diabetes. Cerebral palsy, I had a couple ideas for. But, you know, I've got theories about genetic modifications of yeast, to make glowing wine and stuff I think would be kind of fun to do. Make glowing beer? That'd be kind of neat.
The electrical engineering part of doing these kinds of things is a pain in the ass, but the science part is just really interesting. Taking this from an idea to actually making a physical product, is, you know, I never thought I'd actually make it, I thought it was gonna stay an idea for ever. Hpefully the other ideas I have, I'll also be able to make into physical things.
Are you able to work on this full time?
No, I have a consulting company that I do to help fund these projects. But, yeah, I run a tech consulting company out of Colorado and a non-profit as well, so, this takes up the rest of my free time. Every available hour I have, I spend doing this kind of stuff:- developing, building, creating and programming, whatever it needs.
Have you got a community of people helping you on these side projects?
I do, yeah. It’s really interesting to see that people are really willing to get behind this. I don't have much money to pay people, but people really believe in the end goal of these products, and so they're willing to donate their time and expertise and efforts to create something that will ultimately, one day, make blindness and low vision a choice, instead of a consequence of age, or genetics.