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Cell Phones as Eye Doctors

A prototype device provides access to full-service optometry in your pocket.
October 15, 2010

It won’t be long before most people are carrying high-end scientific equipment around in their pockets at all times, said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and the leader of the Camera Culture group there. That equipment comes in the form of smart phones, and Raskar believes this development “will change everything.”

Netra is an inexpensive and easy-to-attach
add-on for self-testing eyesight quickly, easily,
and accurately with a mobile phone.
Credit: Andy Ryan, MIT Media Lab

Speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration for the Media Lab, Raskar outlined how he wants to take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated power of today’s mobile devices. He said it dawned on him that the 300 dpi resolution on a smart phone screen made it the rival of expensive, specialized devices.

One of his group’s first experiments is the prototype of Netra, a system that can identify problems with a person’s eyesight using only a smartphone, software, and inexpensive optical add-ons. The system, Raskar said, could help people who can’t afford or get access to full-service optometry.

Raskar said the ubiquity of smartphones is a key part of what makes Netra attractive. While other systems have been proposed to provide optometry where it isn’t currently available, those systems were limited by needing expensive equipment, or by being complex enough that they had to be used by an expert.

Similar hardware add-ons could transform smart phones into inexpensive sensor devices that could serve many medical and environmental needs.

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