Business

Seeing things differently - Belfast mum to launch VR vision impairment simulator in the US

Sara McCracken from social enterprise Empatheyes, demonstrates the new VR visual impairment simulator to Stephen Ellis, innovation manager at the Innovation Factory. Picture Brendan Gallagher
Sara McCracken from social enterprise Empatheyes, demonstrates the new VR visual impairment simulator to Stephen Ellis, innovation manager at the Innovation Factory. Picture Brendan Gallagher

A ground-breaking virtual reality vision impairment simulator developed by a Belfast mum to help parents see through the eyes of their visually impaired children will be showcased at a major international conference in the US in July.

Sara McCracken formed social enterprise Empatheyes at Innovation Factory in Belfast to produce a unique new system combining state of the art software with the latest VR technology to replicate an individual’s exact visual impairment.

The idea and passion came about when Sara, chief executive and founder of charity Angel Eyes NI, which supports blind and partially sighted children, began searching for a product that would let parents understand how their children see the world to help them advocate on behalf of their children and secure the right services.

Sara herself is the mother of 17-year-old twins who have a rare genetic condition, diagnosed when they were babies, which impacts their sight.

“I wanted something that could instantly demonstrate how an individual child sees the world to people who don’t have a clinical background.

“There are so many differences in what a visually impaired person can see and it’s very difficult for a sighted person to comprehend. Initially I assumed there would be a digital product out there that would do that but I searched for such a long time and there was nothing,” she said.

She wanted to create a unique system, which provides 360-degree immersion with built-in eye tracking that can be specifically calibrated to recreate more than 30 eye conditions in a variety of settings such as a school classroom, a busy street, bus or play park.

She set about putting a team together to develop the product, including clinical lead Professor Jonathan Jackson, head of optometry at the Royal Victoria Hospital and technology lead Dr Alec Kingsnorth, an optometry expert and software developer who has worked at Aston University in Birmingham.

Ulster University’s Professor of Optometry and Vision Science Kathryn Saunders has also joined the social enterprise as clinical lead trainer.

“By simply putting this headset on, we can demonstrate to parents, carers, teachers and others how the world looks to each visually impaired person so they can fully understand how to make the best adaptations,” she said.

After trialling the product with professionals and carers, it was successfully launched in the UK and Ireland in 2022.

Empatheyes, which recently won a Tech for Good award from Digital DNA, will now be unveiled to an international audience at Vision 2023, a major conference in Denver that brings together professionals and researchers from around the world to share ideas and learn from each other to improve the lives of people with visual impairment or blindness.

Sara said: “The United States is a massive market and they don’t have anything like it there. There’s a lot of excitement already from professionals over there to see this VR system that we created right here in Northern Ireland.

“The use of VR is so powerful that it can have a transformative effect on people as they finally understand how a visually impaired person sees the world.”

Caroline Henderson, whose daughter Aibhilin is visually impaired, spoke of her reaction when she and her husband Carl were able to use Empatheyes.

She said: “It’s an amazing experience to put on a headset and see the world in the way that Aibhilin experiences it. The VR technology is so powerful and helpful for both parents and professionals. My husband was very moved by the experience and it changed his perspective and parenting techniques. It gave me more confidence to advocate on Aibhilin’s behalf.”

The profits of the social enterprise Empatheyes (www.empatheyes.co.uk) will help to fund the services of Angel Eyes NI to support families and children with a vision impairment.