Ultrafine Laser Beams Project Images Directly onto the Retina
Seeing without relying on vision -
Retinal Imaging Laser Eyewear is a pair of smart glasses that can turn this eye-opening concept into reality. These glasses became known by many people after receiving the best of the CEATEC Awards at CEATEC 2016, the METI Award. They were also awarded the grand prize of the CEATEC Innovation Award, "As Selected by U.S. Journalists," at CEATEC Japan 2016 back in October.
The developer of these glasses is a spin-off venture of Fujitsu Limited, QD Laser, Inc. We interviewed Dr. Mitsuru Sugawara, President and CEO, to learn more about the device.
"A tiny projector is installed behind a lens. Using laser technology, this projector scans images from the built-in camera, or data from a smartphone or PC, and projects them directly onto the retina. The retina is semispherical, so projecting images onto it is like projecting images at a planetarium. The key point here is that the projector uses leading-edge ultrafine laser beams with a diameter less than 1 mm. These fine laser beams can directly reach the retina far inside the eyeball. This brings new possibilities for people with low vision (people who are visually impaired but not completely blind); now they can see clearly without having to have strong eyesight or focus."
Helping People with Low Vision, Something that Glasses and Contact Lenses cannot Correct
Having low vision means having weak eyesight, and this cannot be fully corrected by glasses or contact lenses. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as corrected binocular vision of "0.05 to less than 0.3." It has a wide range of causes including glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, retinitis pigmentosa, and excessive myopia. Currently, approximately 1.45 million people in Japan and approximately 250 million people across the world are affected by low vision.
"People with low vision often rely on telescopes, magnifying glasses or a white cane. They experience a lot of inconvenience every day. Many of them wish to work but cannot. If they can use this eyewear like we use our smartphones, I believe their lives can become more convenient and fulfilling," commented Shinji Kounoya, Director & CFO of QD Laser, Inc. and Director of Corporate Strategy, Fujitsu Limited, who helped launch QD Laser and has been supporting its development in the areas of PR and financing.
Cries of Joy are the Driving Force
"We've received comments such as 'I was able to see my family's face for the first time in a long time' and 'my longtime dream of talking to someone looking into their eyes came true' from individuals with low vision who participated in the trials for Retinal Imaging Laser Eyewear. Also, we receive e-mail and phone inquiries about them almost every day. This feedback is our motivation to keep developing." (Kounoya)
"We are now conducting clinical research in Japan and Germany. There was a young German man whose vision became 0.028 due to an accident. He was unable to continue working due to his vision loss. When he tried out our laser eyewear, his vision was corrected to 0.25. He was thrilled to find himself being able to read books. That kind of thing makes me happy." (Sugawara)
We want to Create Innovative Products with our Technologies
Development of Retinal Imaging Laser Eyewear began in 2012. What caught Sugawara's attention was a fundus camera developed in the US during the 1980's.
"Its technology was once applied to eyeglasses, but they failed to gain popularity because of their size. If we used our leading-edge laser technology, however, I knew we could make the device lighter and smaller with higher performance, turning them into an innovative wearable device. Our first intention was to develop the device for general users, but people with low vision who saw and tried out the prototype at a showcase said, 'Please commercialize them for people like us!' In order to deliver the device to those who really needed them, we worked to have it approved as a medical device." (Sugawara)
Never-ending Challenges - Safety, Quality, Size, and Weight
For the Fujitsu group, Retinal Imaging Laser Eyewear was one of the first medical device development projects. Many strict international standards must be met, presenting the developer with one problem after another. Everything was a new challenge in development of this unprecedented product.
"This eyewear uses very weak lasers. The eyes remain safe even after long hours of exposure. It is more difficult, however, to keep the weaker lasers stable. Also, projecting higher quality images requires electricity and complex image processing technologies, and the battery takes a certain amount of space. This then makes it difficult to reduce the controller size and weight. Before arriving at the current device shape, we redesigned the device a number of times, paying attention to the overall balance of the parts, including the lasers, projector, camera, and battery." (Sugawara)
Pursuit of High Portability and an Inconspicuous Design
The initial prototype controller was as large as an A4 piece of paper, and weighed 7 kg or more. The latest, generation 9.5 prototype controller, is 300 g and fits in the palm. The glasses weigh only 50 g. Their size and weight were reduced through trial and error, and they were designed to be stylish. "Going out in public wearing traditional smart glasses required a lot of courage. Our glasses, with all of its optics behind the lens, look like regular sunglasses. We have received positive feedback from people with low vision saying 'they are light and do not make me tired' and 'I am not embarrassed to go out wearing these glasses.' Our ultimate goal is to make these glasses into a barrier-free communication device for everyone around the world, including healthy individuals. To achieve this goal, we would like to make these glasses even smaller, lighter, and simpler. In the future, we hope to eliminate the controller and cable so that all operations can be completed using only the glasses." (Kounoya)
Retinal Imaging Laser Eyewear is now under further improvement for commercialization in 2018. The second part of this interview introduces the environment that generates innovation and the future of products including the development team consisting of professionals in various fields, the Fujitsu venture support program, and the use of the product in areas like entertainment and sports.
- Mitsuru Sugawara
Doctor of Engineering, President and CEO, QD Laser, Inc.
- Born in Niigata in 1958, Mitsuru Sugawara graduated from Applied Physics, Tokyo University in 1982, and received his master's degree from the same department in 1984. He became a Doctor of Engineering at Tokyo University in 1995 (thesis paper). His research theme was nano quantum semiconductor electronics. He joined Fujitsu Limited in 1984. As the manager of photo novel technology research at the Photoelectronics Laboratory and also as the deputy manager of the Nanotechnology Research Center of Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd, he studied and experimented on the photoelectric properties of quantum dot lasers and conducted research on optical communication application. In April 2006, he established QD Laser, Inc. using the Fujitsu venture support program. For his achievements ranging from the basics to application of quantum dot lasers, he has received a number of awards including the IEEE Photonic Society Aron Kressel Award and the MST Yamazaki-Teiichi Prize from the Foundation of Promotion of Material Science and Technology of Japan.
- Shinji Kounoya
Director, QD Laser, Inc.
- Shinji Kounoya was born in Akita in 1965. After graduating from the School of Law, Hokkaido University, he joined Fujitsu Limited in 1991. As a member of Corporate Strategy, he promoted partnerships with and M&As of third party start-ups, and planning and management of programs such as Fujitsu's venture creation program for 16 years. In 2015, he became Director of Corporate Strategy at Fujitsu Limited and also General Manager of the Corporate Planning Division at QD Laser, Inc. In 2016, he became Director of Corporate Strategy at Fujitsu Limited and also Manager of the Corporate Planning Division and Director & CFO of QD Laser, Inc. He engages in the creation of new business development strategies, human resources and organization planning, partnership contract negotiations, financing, and preparing the company for an IPO. He is a chartered member of the Securities Analysts Association of Japan (SAAJ).