MIT Camera Culture Group develops the ‘eyeSelfie’ to help monitor eye health

Researchers from the Camera Culture Group have now come up with the prototype of the eyeSelfie, a device that makes DIY retinal imaging feasible for the first time.
Researchers from the Camera Culture Group have now come up with the prototype of the eyeSelfie, a device that makes DIY retinal imaging feasible for the first time.

Taking a selfie is easy: just point your smartphone toward your face and shoot. But taking a selfie of the interior of an eye is hard, even impossible, imaging specialists might’ve told you, until now.

Researchers at the Camera Culture Group, headed by Ramesh Raskar at the MIT Media Lab, have designed the eyeSelfie, an inexpensive hand-held device for taking a photograph of the retina, the optic nerve, and the vasculature, which is located all the way at the back of one’s eye.

Digital snapshots of the interior of the eye can help physicians detect and treat vision-threatening diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy early. New research indicates that the snapshots can also be used to identify risks factors for hypertension, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The eyeSelfie makes retinal self-imaging possible for the first time,” says Tristan Swedish, a MIT graduate student who will be demonstrating the prototype at SIGGRAPH, a premier annual conference for makers of graphic and interactive technologies, which will be held in Los Angeles later this week. (MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito will be on hand at this year’s conference as the keynote speaker.)

Five years ago, at the same conference, another researcher from Raskar’s group demonstrated a smartphone-based diagnostic tool that can tell if a person needs prescription glasses. A spinout, EyeNetra, refined the low-cost design, and the Somerville-based startup launched the on-demand eye-testing service Blink in New York City this April.

Currently, retinal photographs are not widely used as health indicators. Only trained personnel can operate the imaging equipment, which is often bulky and expensive, and conventional imaging calls for dilating eye drops.

Looking at the retina through the pupil is much like imaging a room through a keyhole, Swedish explains. If you don’t position the eye correctly, you will end up staring at segments of the door instead. The eyeSelfie, which works like a point-and-shoot camera, helps users align their gaze just right, so they can take clear retinal selfies, one eye at a time.

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Here’s how it works: As users peer into the interactive device, which looks a pair of binoculars, they get visual cues in the form of tiny red lights. Initially, they’ll see four specks of light laid out like the tips of a diamond. If they bring the eyeSelfie closer, but not too close, they’ll see another set of dots—a diamond within a diamond.

When everything is aligned just right, a ninth dot appears at the center. This is the user’s cue to press the click button and take a snapshot of the interior of the eye. Experts will then take over and evaluate the retinal selfie.

In a study, the effectiveness of the setup has been tested on ten volunteers. Most get the hang of this imaging technique within ten minutes, the authors report. Even those who wear prescription glasses can use the eyeSelfie.

Dr. Vincent Patalano, the chief of ophthalmology at Cambridge Health Alliance, says the images taken with eyeSelfie “are of good quality, and comparable to those taken by standard retinal cameras used in ophthalmologists’ offices, especially for images of the macula, which is at the center of the retina, and for the optic nerve.”

There are multiple potential applications for eyeSelfie, both in the United States and the developing world, says Patalano, who is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. He adds that people who image themselves with the device may be able to uncover abnormalities when “comparing their own images to standard images, or their own eyes over time, or one eye compared to their other eye.”

Monitoring the condition of one’s own retina may seem very niche at this point, but if more people record retinal selfies periodically — either at home or in a clinical setting — the eye can serve as a window to their future health, says Swedish.

At present, experts analyze retinal snapshots qualitatively, but it may be time to attach numbers to details in these images, he said. With a good-sized data set, the researchers plan to create algorithms to alert users if their retinal selfie doesn’t look great, and tell them to go see a doctor. This software is already in the works.

The group’s immediate goal is to make the device even more intuitive and user-friendly, so retinal imaging can become widespread.