Dr. Michael Reber
Dr. Michael Reber operates a specialized 3D printer that can make tiny silk fibres. (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

Ever since the words "virtual reality" entered our lexicon, humankind has been fascinated with the concept. We imagined visiting far-flung worlds in our very own Star Trek-style holodeck, without ever leaving home.

Holodecks haven't come to fruition just yet, but virtual reality, or VR, is being put to very practical use: transforming the lives of people with low vision.

One of the leaders in this cutting-edge area of research is Dr. Michael Reber, Senior Scientist at the Donald K. Johnson Eye Institute at UHN. He's using VR to solve complex vision challenges, enhancing sight for patients of all ages who had virtually given up hope.

At the heart of Dr. Reber's treatment program is the Oculus Go, a device normally marketed to gamers looking for an immersive experience. Here, the headset and a specialized program are used to treat people with peripheral vision loss.

Low vision patients wear the headset and perform visual exercises at home. A series of animated yellow balls move around a realistic environment (such as a city street); the patient follows and identifies the balls when they change colour. The game gets more challenging as the patient progresses.

"With the Oculus Go, you're repeating over and over a variety of visual tasks – following targets with different colours and speeds," Dr. Reber explains. "You stimulate those brain areas that can compensate for the loss in another area. You train the brain to use what is left of the visual information it gets."

The patient's performance is recorded and sent to members of the team, who can remotely tweak the exercises to enhance progress. "We can fine-tune the stimulation in real time," says Dr. Reber. "It's personalized medicine."

He notes that the Oculus Go's portability allows more patients to benefit from the treatment in their own homes. Patients only need to visit the clinic every two to three weeks for a visual assessment, rather than coming in daily.

"I think it's extremely powerful and convenient for patients," says Dr. Reber.

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