Israeli ‘eye exercise’ app lets IAF pilots dump glasses

GlassesOff says its technology lets aging users see more sharply without spectacles, and the Israel Air Force agrees

Screenshot of one of GlassesOff's visual acuity training games (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Screenshot of one of GlassesOff's visual acuity training games (Photo credit: Courtesy)

No matter how good your eyesight is, presbyopia — a progressively diminishing ability to focus on nearby objects — is an almost inevitable result of aging, making reading or seeing things in dim light increasingly difficult. An Israeli-developed app called GlassesOff claims to be able to prevent, and even reverse, the effects of presbyopia — and now, the company says, it has scientific evidence proving its case in the form of a study conducted on Israel Air Force pilots.

To thoroughly test its contention that “eye exercises” can allow users to throw out their half-moon reading glasses, GlassesOff chose IAF pilots, one of the most “vision-intensive” group of subjects out there. Pilots need near-perfect vision in order to carry out missions, as they must identify ground targets through fog, rain, pollution, and other atmospheric hindrances, often from thousands of feet above the earth. In a study of its equipment that the company is set to present to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, pilots’ visual acuity — sharpness and clarity of vision — improved 35%, and they were also able to respond to images and visual cues 24% faster.

The study, conducted over a two to four month period (depending on candidate and improvement rates), involved 32 IAF pilots who were put through the GlassesOff program, which consists of three, 12-15 minute sessions a week in which app users retrain their eyes by playing “vision games” — choosing a letter embedded within a pattern, “space invader” type shooter games to aim at a target, and the like. The sessions continue for about three months, at which point, with 10-15 hours of “experience” under their belt, “suitable users are expected to achieve image-processing capabilities that do not require the use of a magnifying device, such as reading glasses,” the company says.

According to GlassesOff, blurry vision is caused not only by deterioration of the eye — its loss of elasticity, ability to focus, and adaptability to light — but also by weaker and slower neuronal responses in the visual cortex. The brain’s “slowdown” eventually affects its ability to perform high-level visual tasks, such as letter identification. GlassesOff, the company says, expands neuronal plasticity — the brain’s ability to process and respond to information — essentially compensating for the effects of aging on the eyes.

Presbyopia — the condition most closely associated with the loss of visual acuity — usually begins to affect people in their 40s and 50s, and it’s responsible for the preponderant use of reading glasses by people aged 60 and over. It should be noted that presbyopia can affect people with any level of vision — even those already suffering from myopia (near-sightedness), who wear glasses or contact lenses. Individuals with myopia and presbyopia usually end up wearing bifocals or multifocals to help them see both distances and close-up.

GlassesOff has been around since 2007. Its technology is based on over 20 years of research, the company says, and it went public in 2012 with its shares traded on the NASDAQ. The company has conducted many scientific studies that it claims confirm the efficacy of its technology, but this is the first time that a body as august as the Israel Air Force has supplied that confirmation.

And confirm the IAF did, said Dr. Yuval Levy, vice director of Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center and former commander of the IAF’s Aeromedical Unit (IAMU). The study shows, he said, that IAF pilots using the GlassesOff method “would identify faster and react quicker to objects rapidly entering the pilots’ visual field, such as missiles or other aircraft. In addition, they are expected to have better performance while using night vision goggles or helmet display.”

The app is available for iOS and Android and can be used on most smartphones and tablets, though there is no desktop computer version. If anything could discourage potential customers from using GlassesOff, it’s the app’s price. The full version costs $59.99, while a three-month license costs $20.99. The company also recommends users subscribe to its “ongoing care” option, to prevent the return of presbyopia. That option is available by the month, or in GlassesOff’s “Gold Care” package, for a one-time fee of $149.99. Considering that stnadard reading glasses are available for just a few dollars at local pharmacies and discount stores almost everywhere, GlassesOff may be a hard sell to value-conscious presbyopia sufferers, but the company says that the ability to drop reading glasses altogether is enough of an incentive for the app’s many thousands of users — aiming especially for athletes.

In previous studies, including one conducted several years ago at UC Berkeley, GlassesOff said that it was able to improve visual acuity in users by as much as 80%. The IAF study’s findings were less dramatic, but the standards required by the air force were much higher. Participants, including IAF pilots and co-pilots, were given extensive vision exams before starting the program. Based on IAF protocol and the initial vision exams, study participants included pilots who had symptoms of age-related decline in near vision and would likely soon require reading glasses for flights, and pilots who were already required to wear reading glasses during flights.

Thirty-two pilots and co-pilots completed the GlassesOff program, and 28 were given an extensive vision exam post-program completion, the company said. “The study results demonstrated a significant 35% improvement in visual acuity and 24% improvement in image processing speed,” while “more than 70% of the participants self-reported substantial changes in their near visual acuity and 60% self-reported improved reaction times,” GlassesOff said.

GlassesOff is happy with the results, said CEO Nimrod Madar, because it vindicates the long years of work that went into developing the technology. “We are very pleased to have collaborated with the Israel Air Force, and the study results,” said Madar. ”Similar to top athletes, Air Force pilots typically have superior vision skills compared to age-matched civilians, making it that much more challenging to help them achieve significant visual acuity and image processing speed improvements. We believe that our current and future products will assist professional athletes and anyone else who is engaged in sports that require fast image processing speed, such as baseball, basketball, football, tennis, martial arts and others, to become better at their sport by helping them react faster and more accurately to challenging game situations.”

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