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Electric Puppets: Halifax company explores use of virtual reality in eye testing

Despite the rapid uptake of digital technology in many of today’s biggest industries — with gaming and entertainment leading the way — the healthcare sector is slow to adapt to change.

Halifax-based Electric Puppets, headed by CEO Ryan Cameron, aims to help them on their way.

The company, under Cameron’s direction, offers solutions to real-world problems by harnessing the power of virtual reality (VR). And they’ve set their sights on clinical applications – starting with a bid that could revolutionize the eye-care industry.

Working in collaboration with the IWK Health Centre Eye Clinic, Electric Puppets is exploring the use of VR in eye testing, to enhance existing tests and data collection and improve the experience of patients (and families) in the clinic through use of virtual environments. Their pioneer product, Evrisia, records pupil size, movement, and eye position – combining motion tracking and biometrics with an immersive platform to capture data that can be played back in virtual reality.

“After meeting with Ryan it seems there are a lot of opportunities,” says Darren Oystreck, chair of the clinical vision science program at Dalhousie University and chief of orthoptics at the IWK. “We’ve been working for the last year. We now have ethics approval, a bit of grant money, and a seven-phase process to ensure the technology works. Once we validate that, we're really excited about building something extremely unique.”

The opportunity, says Cameron, lies in the great lengths eye tests go to in differentiating what each eye is seeing, to ensure they are aligned and working properly. That differentiation is difficult to produce with mechanical devices, and using available tools — like 3D glasses — can impact the capture of other data. With VR it’s possible to render anything in one eye or the other with just a few lines of code; in fact, it’s very easy. With VR, current tests become nearly obsolete. “What could we do if we didn’t have to put 3D glasses on a person?” asks Cameron.

The answer, it turns out, is a lot. Not only does Cameron see the potential to create and patent new tests that could be a huge boon for the eye clinic, Dalhousie University, and Electric Puppets itself, they’re exploring opportunities to translate these advances across disciplines. And many are keen to examine the possibilities.

“Since we started with the eye clinic we’ve had the phone ringing off the hook,” he says.

Although their research into the clinical applications of VR is still in its infancy, other players have already taken note. Electric Puppets is working with a host of clients: Dalhousie’s Brain Repair Centre (whose mission it is to discover ways to prevent, repair and even reverse brain damage); Coloursmith Labs (a startup that makes corrective contacts to treat colour-blindness); Tranquility Online (a digital subscription service that uses cognitive behavioural therapy to assist people suffering from obsessive worrying, anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias); and Unified Health (a group of alternative medicine practitioners eager to integrate virtual reality into their practices), to name just a few.

“Everyone we talk to really sees the potential,” says Oystreck. “It's an exciting topic.”

“It’s super exciting,” says Jonathan Gallant, president of Electric Puppets (and chartered accountant with a number of local business interests), echoing Oystreck’s sentiment. “This is the first business I've ever been involved with where governmental agencies are actively interested in giving you money.”

Indeed, everyone from Copernicus Studios (who housed and supported Electric Puppets in their early days and with whom they’re developing a formal relationship going forward), to Dalhousie University, the province of Nova Scotia (their Start and Graduate to Opportunity programs help with labour costs), private investors, and Innovacorp have provided Cameron and his team with invaluable support.

“It's been incredible,” says Cameron. “And it seems to be continuously coming in. People like this concept, I suppose.”

“It’s tech and healthcare,” adds Gallant. “Is there anything sexier? From an investment perspective in 2018? I don’t think there is.”

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