When Brig. Gen. Richard C. Freeman, a retired fighter pilot, developed macular degeneration, he implored his sons Michael and Mitchael and son-in-law Chad Boss to develop a solution for his handicap.
“This is a man who had flown fighter jets at 1800 miles per hour, and now he couldn’t read his email,” recalled his son, Michael Freeman J.D., now CEO of Ocutrx Vision Technologies. “He got us all together one Sunday and said, ‘This is a terrible disease — nobody should have to suffer from this. Surely, we can figure a way around this.’”
The solution turned out to be Oculenz, augmented reality (AR) glasses that help those with macular degeneration see and even read again. The glasses will be available next year. “We have working Oculenzes – the next step is to shrink them down to the size of ordinary sunglasses,” he says.
The Oculenz is what Freeman calls “the latest, the greatest and the best” among a host of technological miracles he and his family have developed. Freeman has 63 engineering patents in five industries: mobile video, nanochemicals, Radio-frequency identification technology, the power supply industry and, his latest, financial technology.
The earliest are patents for the first-ever mobile video – which the cellular companies had assured him was impossible. Nevertheless, while attending college at Oklahoma State University and working for PC designs, his father’s computer manufacturing company, Freeman and his brother successfully developed mobile, streaming video.
Freeman’s initial goal: to simplify the process of fixing customers’ computer problems. “I was constantly saying, ‘If this cell phone could do video, I could just show them what the problem is and they could understand how to fix it.’”
Proving the cellular companies wrong led to a lot more than better customer service, however. It was a major advance for television news. No one had to drive tapes from their cameras back to the office, fly them back from a news site by plane, or send a $300,000 satellite truck to wherever the news was. Streaming video meant TV could show the film as it was being taken.
“We licensed the technology to nearly every cell company that existed at the time,” Freeman recalls.
They won two 1994 Emmy awards for the invention. One, “Best Spot News,” was for sending live pictures to televise the 1993 Mississippi River flood. The second award was for “Best Technological Advance for TV Arts and Sciences.”
- In 1995, Freeman and family helped the Federal Emergency Management Administration use mobile video to find people to rescue after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma.
- They provided the first video equipment ever used by emergency medical technicians transporting patients to Hermann Hospital in Houston.
- Oil and gas companies used it for real-time remote monitoring to measure, for example, how much gas was being gathered and what the pressure was.
So how did the Freeman brothers develop Oculenz?
“We did computer programming in real time with my father’s vision to identify the edges of his scotoma, which is the area that is damaged and has no vision,” he says.
Once they knew where he could see and where he couldn’t, they developed an algorithm that modified the image to avoid the area of the defect. “The whole image was there, but none of it was in the area of the defect,” Freeman adds.
A different field of vision is required for different tasks. “We moved it out 360 degrees for tasks like facial recognition, for tying shoes, for buttoning clothes – but for reading, we only moved things out right to left.”
As he further explains, when you have macular degeneration, there’s a hole in your sight. So in a 12-letter word, for example, as many as five or six of the letters are missing. By moving things left or right, “the letters literally hop out of the defect and display in the area of the eye that still has vision.”
Today, the Oculenz process is automated. People wearing the glasses run through a visual field test that takes about two minutes per eye. They are exposed to concentric circles, flashes of light and shooting stars. By punching a button when they see those images, they define the area of their defect.
Freeman and his team have overlaid the results of their tests over photos doctors have taken of the back of patients’ eyes. “We’re always within about 92 percent of the same area,” Freeman says. In addition, trials of Oculenz demonstrate that patients who couldn’t read the first line on an eye chart were able to read five lines down when wearing the lenses.
Helping people with macular degeneration is just one possibility for Oculenz, which has the widest and most unobstructed field of view in the AR market. Among its potential uses:
- Doctors doing surgery can use 3D imagery from MRIs and CAT scans to line up that 3D image with the real organ.
- Someone in the hard-hat industry who has to fix a pipe he can have a picture overlaid on that pipe that tells him exactly what to do.
- Oculenz’s eye-tracking technology can control a drone and display what the drone sees.
- On an assembly line, eye tracking can be used to determine if an employee is fatigued, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
- Other low-vision patients can benefit from Oculenz’s simultaneous localization and mapping technology. The headset has sensors to map out the environment, and its object recognition technology allows it to identify objects. “So once you’ve looked around the room two or three times, the headset knows where you are in relation to everything else, and it knows what everything else is,” Freeman says. It knows a person from a wall, and a door or couch from a chair or a bicycle. It will alert you to a chair three feet away or stairs two feet away. As a result, a person wearing the lenses is less likely to trip or fall.
- Hazmat crews can go into a room that hasn’t previously been mapped and look around to map the room. Then if a fire breaks out or smoke or chemicals are released, it can guide them to an exit.
Freeman’s technology is crucial for the future. About 13 million people in the United States have some form of macular degeneration, and the number is predicted to climb to 22 million by 2050. Overall, about 200 million people around the world have some form of central eye defect.
Even as Freeman perfects the Oculenz, he continues to invent. He has already set up a company – Expenzeit LLP – for his latest patent, a paperless way to maintain receipts. Typically, people take a photo of a paper receipt, email it to themselves and download it into an app to create an expense report. Freeman’s system bypasses that process by telling the payment processing terminal to take two pictures: one sent to the printer, and one sent home to your personal app – which automatically populates the expense report.
That means big companies will know in real time how much money has to go out for company credit card expenses people haven’t turned in yet. “It allows companies to do advance planning,” he says.
With so many patents to his name, what is Freeman’s advice for would-be inventors? “Think big and keep after it. Don’t listen to anybody except what your heart and head tell you inside.”
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