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This Canadian Video Game Could Cure Lazy Eye. Yes, Really

03/23/2015 11:05 EDT | Updated 03/28/2015 03:59 EDT

Playing video games has long been demonized for all the screentime that could be ruining our eyesight. But what if it actually helped it?

Montreal-based video game publisher Ubisoft's upcoming release, "Dig Rush," is setting out to treat Amblyopia, a disorder commonly known as "lazy eye" that affects three per cent of the population, and can lead to blindness in one eye. Developers say clinical trials of this therapeutic video game showed improvement in 90 per cent of test patients.

"The traditional treatment is a 200-year-old remedy — an eye-patch," explains Joseph Koziak, CEO of Amblyotech, the medical company teaming up with Ubisoft to make the game. "The problem is compliance is very difficult. Children don't like to be patched, they don't like having someone laugh at them for having the patch on. It never really worked very well."

Even worse, placing a patch over the good eye to strengthen the other was ineffective for adults and not even a long-term solution for kids, because it wasn't dealing with the root cause. The brain is suppressing the the weaker eye to avoid double images, so the better solution is to train the brain to get both eyes working together again.

A "revolutionary" new eye treatment using contrasting colours was developed and patented by McGill University researcher Dr. Robert Hess but, as Koziak notes, "just looking at a series of contrasts isn't going to be very exciting, especially when treatment is an hour a day for six weeks. What we needed was to develop some form of entertainment which would keep the patient concentrating on the images."

Enter Ubisoft Montreal, the makers of such blockbuster game franchises as "Assassin's Creed" and "Far Cry."

"It was a coincidence that I met Dr. Hess one night at a Hacking Health Cafe where we were gathering health specialists and developers trying to solve issues," recalls Ubisoft's Mathieu Ferland. "It's very interesting for a game producer like me to work on such a project."

While Hess had done his research with Tetris, Ubisoft designed a more involving and effective "Super Mario"-style side-scroller (in which the player's avatar goes towards the right, rather than into the game). With the player's character in red and the enemies in blue, old-timey 3D glasses control which eye sees which element. Ferland says it trains the brain to recover binocular vision by making it "impossible for a user to play the game without synchronizing both eyes."

Currently undergoing regulatory approval with the FDA and then Health Canada, the game will be prescribed by doctors via a dedicated tablet so it can be calibrated and customized to each patient, as well as adjusting automatically to their progression.

Koziak points out that despite affecting three per cent of the world's population, amblyopia is relatively obscure and lacks the awareness, research and fundraising of better-known ailments. But for almost all of those treated in the "Dig Rush" trials, "they are viewing life using both eyes. They can see depth perception, they can see 3D items, they can play sports. For them, that's a totally unique experience."

The treatment is also a unique experience, but not for long. This summer will see a Games for Health Conference in Boston to discuss the "the increasing role videogames and gamification are having in healthcare today."

"The tablet or smartphone is now the syringe of the future. It is going to be able to provide treatment options for various illnesses. The first we're working on is ambylopia but we really don't know where this industry's going to take us," Koziak says, reeling off potential applications for stress disorders, ADHD, autism and concussion impacts.

As for Ubisoft, they say the feedback received after revealing "Dig Rush" at the recent Game Developers Conference was overwhelming.

"Internally, this project was a secret for a long time and people were so surprised," Ferland says, adding several afflicted coworkers told him it could change their lives. "There's a great satisfaction to know that we can improve the sight of millions of patients worldwide."


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