If you were the kid at school who wore an eye patch (or one of the kids who picked on them) then you will have come across amblyopia and strabismus. The first is better known as lazy eye and the second as cross eye. They’re conditions where a weakness in one eye leads the brain to favour the dominant eye and suppress information received from the weaker eye. This weirdness of the brain leaves the eye-owner with limited depth perception.
Diplopia’s a game for the Oculus Rift that aims to exercise the brain into using both eyes equally and give the weak-eyed folk a way of seeing in three dimensions again.
“It was long thought that once a person's brain had learned to suppress one of their eyes that they could only unlearn this suppression before a "critical age" of between 8 and 12 years old,” writes the game’s creator, James Blaha, on Diplopia’s IndieGoGo page. “Only recently has it been shown that certain kinds of therapies (including video games) can actually treat strabismus past adolescence, allowing for the possibility of restoring 3D vision in adults.”
The game itself is pretty simple. It’s essentially Breakout in a 3D environment. So you control a paddle with which to bat a ball at a wall of breakable bricks. The cleverness comes in how Blaha uses the two lenses of the Rift. Usually games for the Rift present two slightly different angled views of the same game world, your brain then combines the two images to create a single image that gives the illusion of depth. However, in Diplopia, Braha splits the information provided by each lens. One shows the brightly coloured bricks and paddle while the other shows the ball and the dark coloured bricks. To play the game your brain has to use the information provided to both eyes, if it uses one eye predominantly you will not be able to succeed.
Over hours of play the game should strengthen the weaker eye and restore the brain’s use of each eye to equilibrium. In theory.
The worry I have with this campaign (which has long passed its funding target) is that we don’t know if it works. The theory sounds good, I’ve used patches and amblyopia testing machines before and this lines up well with my experiences of them but Blaha writes “I was told by doctors my whole life that I could never see in three dimensions like everyone else. By backing this project you can give the gift of better vision to those of us who lack it.” He has an Oculus Rift available to him - we see it in the pitch video - and a version of the game running already. Why doesn’t he say whether it’s worked for him?
I’m being cautious, it may well work exceedingly well and, if it does, that’s an excellent thing for people who struggle with those eye conditions, but backing something like this without supporting evidence that Diplopia works could be throwing money away.
Blaha also hopes to introduce “several testing modes to measure suppression and the angle and type of offset between the eyes. Using these testing modes along with optional player surveys I hope to collect data about what techniques are best for treatment. This data would be released to the public after stripping all personal information from it.
“There will be tests for color blindness, visual acuity (if resolution permits), and visual field as well.
“Diplopia could be an improvement over other options because both the gameplay and the game are in 3 dimensions. This means that you are training your eyes in an environment that is more like real life than a simple 2D game. The ball is moving quickly in three dimensions, forcing the player to track it quickly to win. This exercises the eye more than a slower paced game with less movement.”
It sounds compelling and I hope it all proves to be true but self-diagnosing and self-treating eye conditions sounds like risky business.