Teen creates high-tech glasses to help his grandma see better

Teen boy with his grandma and the high tech glasses that help people with low vision

Like most grandparents, Marian Reekie is proud of her grandchildren. But the 81-year old Portland resident has an especially good reason to brag about her 14-year old grandson, Christopher Reekie. Visually impaired from advanced age-related macular degeneration – or AMD - Marian is able to see faces and read print for the first time in years thanks to a pair of video magnification glasses Christopher created on his own.

An eighth grader at Oregon Episcopal School,  Christopher hatched the idea for the high-tech vision aid after noticing his grandmother's eyesight was worsening as her disease progressed. "I could no longer drive, see things on my smart phone, read large print books or write," says Marian, a patient at OHSU's Casey Eye Institute. Eager to find something to help her, she flew to Colorado to try out a similar type of electronic glasses, but was disappointed in their quality, comfort and high price tag of $15,000.

"I had the idea that I could make something like this better and more affordable," says Christopher, who financed the project called 'Magniglass' through a successful Kickstarter campaign. In December, he presented his grandmother with a prototype version of the eyewear for Christmas.

On a crisp afternoon in January, Marian, Christopher and his father Ian Reekie gather in an exam room at Casey Eye Institute's South Waterfront location to demonstrate the glasses for John Boyer, O.D., clinical director of the Vision Rehabilitation Center. Christina Flaxel, M.D., a Casey retina specialist treating Marian for her AMD, suggested she and her grandson follow up with Dr. Boyer for his expert evaluation.

Christopher explains that Magniglass was pieced together "from the ground up" with components he found on the Internet. The device consists of high definition video glasses connected to a video feed from a small camera mounted to the top center of the glasses. The video signal is transmitted to a micro-computer mounted in a small box with a lightweight battery pack. One of the challenges was "writing the software code so that the video camera communicates seamlessly with the glasses and the software can manipulate the zoom and contrast," he wrote on his Kickstarter page.

"The glasses are very adaptable and allow the wearer to control brightness, contrast, zoom and color saturation," says Chris, adding that he plans to fine tune the device so the battery is smaller and the control buttons are easier to manipulate.

One of the glasses' major pluses is that it allows her to distinguish faces, says Marian. "I saw my son's face for the first time in years," she says. When she donned the glasses during her visit with Dr. Boyer, she was delighted to find she could read the letters on the eye chart. Without them, it was nearly impossible, she says.

Once Christopher finishes his improvements, Marian says she looks forward to using the glasses for a variety of situations, such as keeping track of her friends when they go to the shopping mall. "Sometimes they will wander off and I can't see them," she says with a chuckle.

Christopher's creation, which won "Best in Show" in his school's science fair, is already garnering outside interest. One of his Kickstarter backers would like to manufacture the devices for a school for the blind in India.

The middle schooler has also used his ingenuity to build an electronic mirror that magnifies his grandmother's face on a video monitor. "I can't tell you what's it's like to be able put on makeup and see my face," she says. "In the past, my lipstick was not where it should be."

Dr. Boyer says he is very impressed with Christopher's efforts so far. "Christopher is a bright and creative young man whose vision-prosthetic device potentially has world-wide application. The prototype we have seen is lighter weight, simpler to operate, and potentially more affordable than some similar devices that are currently available," he says. "We are all eager to follow his progress." 

Watch the KGW news story about Christopher and his grandmother