An entrepreneur is using virtual-reality headsets to try to cure vision disorders

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Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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Virtual reality is still far from being a mainstream technology. But when Facebook bought VR headset-maker Oculus for $2 billion last year, it signaled to the world that virtual reality was no longer sci-fi, kicking off a frenzy of experimentation.

For James Blaha, who’s struggled all his life with strabismus—a vision condition more commonly known as crossed eyes—virtual reality offered a potential cure, and he’s built a venture-backed company based on this promise.

For years, Blaha had contemplated different solutions to fix his condition, including using two projectors to send different images to each eye to help strengthen the weaker one. But when the Oculus Rift development kit came out, he realized the headset could do exactly that without so many moving parts.

“When I started [experimenting], I didn’t have any stereo vision,” he tells Quartz. That was almost two years ago when the vision in his weak eye was 20/70 while wearing glasses. (The measurement means that at 20 feet, he was able to see what a person with perfect vision could see 70 feet away.) In July, he reported gaining about 80% of his stereo vision and near 20/20 vision with his glasses.

“That was a fundamental new thing that was unlocked by virtual-reality technology, and I thought it was amazing,” says Arvind Gupta, an investor at SOSVentures, which led the $700,000 seed round for Blaha’s company, See Vividly. What made the company so attractive to him was that it “figured out how to solve a problem that was previously impossible,” he says.

Because of how nascent the technology is, investors have been willing to bet on See Vividly based on Blaha’s own improvement. But the company is about a third of the way through an extensive nine-month trial involving 50 to 60 participants at the University of California San Francisco to study the effects of See Vividly’s software, Vivid Vision. “So far what we’re seeing is consistent with what we’re expecting,” says Blaha. Earlier this year, a small trial in Slovakia saw improvement in nine of 15 participants with amblyopia. (Blaha’s condition, strabismus, is a type of amblyopia, also known as lazy eye.)

Those results are changing what eye doctors know about amblyopia in adults. The traditional cure for lazy eye—covering up the stronger eye with an eyepatch to train the weaker eye—is most effective in young children.

“Funnily, my sister is an ophthalmologist,” says Gupta. “She told me science says this is impossible. The brain is not plastic enough to change. What we’re finding is it’s not true… Now it’s a matter of optimizing and understanding what types of lazy eye are curable.”

Blaha ultimately envisions distributing See Vividly’s software directly to patients, but is currently testing it in some US vision therapy clinics equipped with Oculus Rift development kits. “The main reason is because the hardware’s not ready for a consumer market,” he says. “A normal person cannot buy it and set it up in a reasonable amount of time.” The requirements for the software include an Oculus headset, Leap Motion controller (which tracks natural hand movements), a game controller, and high-end desktop computer.

Still, the company plans to release a home version when Oculus ships its first consumer headset in early 2016. Virtual-reality technology ”is at a stage where it’s good enough to be useful, even if it’s not ideal from our perspective,” says Blaha. ”But in general, I think the technology’s getting better really, really quickly.”

The upcoming VR headsets from Oculus, Sony, and Valve are marketed primarily to hardcore video gamers, but Blaha’s company shows that the technology has at least the potential to revolutionize virtually every industry–no pun intended.