Montclair scientist runs unique company treating vision problems
By Lou Fancher
Among the marvels of human anatomy we take for granted because it usually functions superbly without effort is vision. Certainly, many people require glasses, Lasik surgery or other corrective procedures, but in general, we expect our eyes to work in well-coordinated fashion, and they generally do — except for when they don’t, even after medical interventions increase visual acuity.
If binocular vision disorders, the inability for two eyes to face the same direction and see words or images and their surroundings, goes undetected, especially during childhood and early schooling, the impact can be devastating. Vision testing in schools and doctor’s offices commonly does not address binocular vision, but each eye’s ability to look at the same word or image at the same time is vital for reading and visual comprehension.
“Kids who don’t read at grade level by grade three are at very high risk of being low-income for life and/or going to jail,” says Montclair resident Dr. Maureen Powers, who cites “Optometry’s Role in Juvenile Delinquency Remediation,” a book published by the Optometric Extension Program Foundation to support her claim. “Our data show that about 20% of kids have poor eye coordination. If we can help only 10% of them, that would be a huge impact.”
Powers is an internationally recognized research scientist and currently holds positions as founder/senior scientist and director of research of the Gemstone Foundation (bayareane.ws/2VfGfuH) and founder and chief executive officer of Eyes in Sync LLC (eyesinsync.com/team), a San Pablo company that creates virtual-reality games to improve binocular vision. Powers’ areas of expertise include visual systems and brain plasticity. For two decades before moving to the Bay Area, she was a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she founded and directed the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center.
In May 2020, Eyes in Sync received a rare, prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to support the company’s newest software innovation, an adventure game titled “The Crystal Key.” The binocular development tool uses virtual reality and is played using an app on an Oculus Quest 2 device. Powers grew up in Alameda and says her mother was a frustrated scientist who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1941.
“She instilled in me a love of nature and geology. We spent time in Yosemite and traveling to state parks,” says Powers.
Initially interested in sociology and with a heart for public service, she intended to concentrate on animal behavior during her graduate years.
“I turned to psychology in grad school at the University of Michigan because I couldn’t get into the zoology major. My plan was to take background courses for zoology, but I ended up in neuroscience. It was a brand-new field then. Combining outside information and how it gets into the body and brain was fascinating to me.”
Powers has never looked back since. Instead, her work centers on reading, which she believes is “the most important skill you learn in school.” She says adults and kids spend increasing amounts of time reading: street signs and highway messaging, on phones and screens for news or social interaction or working and learning online.
“Eyes in Sync’s purpose and this new prototype we’ve developed are not just about correcting eyes and vision; they’re about making sure the entire visual system is working well. To make your car run well at night, you need headlights. If the mechanism behind those lights isn’t running, you’ll have a hard time getting where you want to go.”
“Crystal Key” is scientifically developed, but because it’s aimed primarily at kids, it also has to be fun for users. In testing the product, Powers says children ranked various puzzle games.
“The game that won the most votes was an adventure game. You get points for putting your eyes in specific places in a mysterious land. The initial name was ‘Hocus Focus,’ but we didn’t want to emphasize the vision part of the game. We came up with ‘Crystal Key’ because you’re unlocking things to get from one world to another — and also, you’re awakening powers in yourself.”
The “powers” awakened are eye coordination and teaming that enhances peripheral awareness, stimulates eye-brain connections, reduces reading stress and improves comprehension. Powers says a personal success while working with school districts was witnessing children succeeding in tests that the company conducted.
“A professional success was (Kern County’s) Delano Joint Unified High School District and (San Jose’s) East Side Union School District giving us contracts. The Gemstone Dynamic Vision Training programs provided data for us to then apply for a $500,000 NIH grant to study grades-three-to-six students in Los Angeles districts,” she recalls.
Results from another six-week program conducted in California and Tennessee involving 7,000 high school students showed improved reading scores in first through fourth grades after just 30 sessions. If beginning-level reading requires strong eye control and if learning disorders and social delays frequently are rooted in reading disabilities (Powers cites numerous studies and reports posted on company websites), why are parents and teachers not more aware?
“It’s a good question I’ve been pondering for years,” she says. “It was once thought you couldn’t retrain eye coordination. Experts, including Nobel laureates now say they made a mistake. We didn’t know about brain plasticity then. There is also skepticism about exaggerated claims related to (alternative medicine) vision therapy. VR games are not the same as vision therapy and are used in tandem with doctor-supervised activities.”
Asked about funding, especially in low-income communities, Powers says it’s an ongoing problem but sees indications of improvement.
“The market is shifting. Schools are finding students are familiar with the technology,” she says. “The education world is aware they need to have these technologies and tools in the schools.”
Eyes in Sync already has processes that use Google Cardboard and other inexpensive tools to let users play the games on mobile devices such as smartphones. Importantly, by testing, training and administering programs in school classrooms, expenses related to transportation or parents taking time off work to visit medical offices or clinics are eliminated.
With surveys that Gemstone Foundation conducts showing improvements in reading, test results and positive recommendations from students averaging 75-80 percentage points — often higher — Powers says boosting kids’ visual agility clearly plays an important role in academic success.
“Symptoms not detected in regular vision screenings need to be caught at the right age, before eye movements become entrenched, before it becomes a habit and the muscles weaken. We are primates and not born to read. That skill has to be mastered.”