An estimated one out of every four school-aged children has an undetected and untreated vision disorder. If it's amblyopia ("lazy eye") and it's left untreated through age 9, the damage could very well be permanent.
Those statistics spurred a pair of entrepreneurs into creating an interactive video game designed to screen children for a wide variety of vision disorders. Called EyeSpy 20/20, the technology is being distributed to schools throughout the country in hopes that every child can be effectively screened, diagnosed and treated.
"Children can have a vision disorder where they simply do not see the world clearly and they don't know any different," said Richard S. Tirendi, a Phoenix-based electrical and computer engineer who launched VisionQuest 20/20 with James W. O'Neil, MD, an ophthalmologist and children's eye surgeon who now serves as the company's chief technical officer. "There are a whole range of lifelong consequences that can stem from untreated vision disorder, and yet they can be very easy to detect and treat."
Tirendi, who suffered a temporary loss of vision at age 5 from a poisonous insect bite, said he and O'Neil were casual acquaintances for several years before the two hit upon the concept of EyeSpy 20/20. After several years of development, they sent their technology to the renowned Medical University of South Carolina's Storm Eye Institute, which took another three years to validate the process for scientific accuracy and reliability.
According to Tirendi, the EyeSpy 20/20 technology can be easily downloaded onto a computer or laptop, launching an interactive video game and computerized stereogram that tests children for distance acuity, depth perception and color vision and can be integrated with other vision screening technologies. The test results are stored in the cloud, which can be accessed by school health professionals, and sent home with each child to his or her parents.
"It engages the child, which actually improves the accuracy of the test," said Tirendi.
That's a far cry from the typical screen test, conducted in an ophthalmologist's office, which makes use of a wall chart that was created in 1862 and which nearly every living person can memorize over a short period of time. Add to that the fact that children do have a tendency to "cheat" their way through eye exams, and a nationwide shortage of skilled ophthalmologists, and the case is made.
With their technology validated, Tirendi and O'Neil moved into the second phase of their operations about three years ago when they began distributing EyeSpy 20/20 to schools in the Phoenix area. The technology is now available in schools in several states, from Alaska to Florida, and has been featured on the Fox News Channel, NBC Nightly News and NPR as well as the Huffington Post and CNBC.
Tirendi said typical eye screening technology costs between $6,000 and $10,000, whereas a school or district can purchase EyeSpy 20/20 for roughly $3,800 and install it on any number of computers or laptops, with an annual fee of about $800 after that to keep the technology up to date (forward-thinking schools, he pointed out, can often find sponsors to underwrite some, if not all, of that cost).
"You can do about 10 kids an hour per laptop," Tirendi said. "Entire schools or districts can test all of their students in little time, and this can be done annually."
Tirendi is quick to point out that EyeSpy 20/20 "is essentially an electronic wall chart" that can detect a number of vision disorders, including amblyopia, cataracts and color blindness. It won't detect cancer or other more serious issues, though.
"It's not a medical diagnosis tool and it's certainly not a replacement for an eye exam," he said.
Still, when some 5 million Americans suffer from amblyopia, which can be successfully treated if it's detected before age 9, "this is a public health dilemma for which we have a cure," he said.
Left untreated, he added, eye disorders can lead to social disorders, missed diagnoses for ADHD and other psychological issues, and a loss of productivity in school and work. Some estimates put the societal costs of untreated eye disorders as high as $50 billion each year.
"It's long been established that 80 percent of learning occurs visually," Tirendi said.
Tirendi and O'Neil have since formed a non-profit, with the goal of distributing EyeSpy 20/20 to as many schools and children's healthcare agencies in the country. They estimate that more than 200,000 children have been tested so far.
“Working with VisionQuest 20/20 is in many ways an extension of what I do every day as a children’s eye doctor,” O'Neil said in a press release. “My goal is to help make certain children can see. The difference is, instead of interacting with one child at a time, VisionQuest 20/20’s program allows me to impact the lives of children on a much more significant scale.”