A Belfast-based mother has developed a revolutionary virtual reality (VR) vision impairment simulator that allows parents to experience the world through the eyes of their visually impaired children. This groundbreaking system, called Empatheyes, will be showcased at a major international conference in the United States in July.
Sara McCracken, CEO and founder of the charity Angel Eyes NI, established the social enterprise Empatheyes at Innovation Factory in Belfast. The enterprise combines cutting-edge software with the latest VR technology to accurately replicate an individual’s specific visual impairment.
Sara’s motivation for creating this unique system stemmed from her own experience as the mother of 17-year-old twins who have a rare genetic condition affecting their sight. As the head of a charity supporting blind and partially sighted children, Sara realized the need for a product that could help parents understand their children’s perspective and enable them to advocate for the necessary services.
“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 found nothing,” Sara explained.
Empatheyes offers a fully immersive experience with built-in eye tracking, allowing for precise calibration to recreate over 30 different eye conditions in various settings such as classrooms, bustling streets, buses, and playgrounds.
Sara assembled a team of experts to develop the product, including clinical lead Professor Jonathan Jackson from the Royal Victoria Hospital and technology lead Dr. Alec Kingsnorth, an optometry expert and software developer who previously worked at Aston University. Professor Kathryn Saunders, a renowned optometry and vision science expert from Ulster University, has also joined Empatheyes as the clinical lead trainer.
“By simply putting on this headset, we can demonstrate to parents, caregivers, teachers, and others how the world looks to each visually impaired person, enabling them to fully understand how to make the best adaptations,” Sara said.
After successful trials with professionals and caregivers, Empatheyes was officially launched in the UK and Ireland in 2022. The social enterprise recently received a Tech for Good award from Digital DNA and is now set to be unveiled to an international audience at Vision 2023, a prominent conference in Denver that brings together professionals and researchers from around the world to exchange ideas and improve the lives of individuals with visual impairments or blindness.
“The United States is a massive market, and they don’t have anything like it there. There’s already a lot of excitement from professionals who are eager 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,” Sara added.
Caroline Henderson, a mother whose daughter Aibhilin is visually impaired, shared her experience of using Empatheyes with her husband Carl.
“It’s an amazing experience to put on a headset and see the world through Aibhilin’s eyes. The VR technology is incredibly powerful and helpful for both parents and professionals. My husband Carl was deeply moved by the experience, which changed his perspective and parenting techniques. It gave me more confidence to advocate on Aibhilin’s behalf,” Caroline said.
The profits generated by Empatheyes will contribute to funding the services provided by Angel Eyes NI to support families and children with vision impairments.
Innovation Factory, where Empatheyes is currently located, has played a significant role in supporting the social enterprise. Sara explained, “We chose to open an office at Innovation Factory
because of their commitment to supporting the local community and engaging with young people. The team at Innovation Factory has been instrumental in helping us network, establish new contacts, and identify funding opportunities that have truly elevated our enterprise,” Sara said.
Innovation Factory, owned by Belfast City Council and operated on its behalf by Oxford Innovation Space, is a thriving business hub that received £9.1 million in funding from Belfast City Council, Invest NI, and the European Regional Development Fund.
Stephen Ellis, Innovation Manager at Innovation Factory, expressed his excitement about the growth of Empatheyes since they joined the center in 2020. He emphasized their unwavering dedication to assisting visually impaired children and their families. He also highlighted the significance of introducing cutting-edge technology developed in Belfast to the global stage through their entry into the US market.
Innovation Factory is committed to offering guidance and support to new and expanding businesses. For more information on Innovation Factory, please visit their website at www.innovationfactoryni.com. To learn more about Empatheyes and its transformative VR technology, visit www.empatheyes.co.uk.
This US launch of the Empatheyes VR vision impairment simulator marks a significant milestone in advancing understanding and empathy for visually impaired individuals. By providing parents, caregivers, and professionals with a firsthand experience of visual impairments, Empatheyes empowers them to make informed decisions and improvements in the lives of those they care for. With its innovative technology and dedication to supporting families and children with vision impairments, Empatheyes is poised to make a lasting impact on a global scale.