Biomedical engineer Tara Alvarez and her team of engineers, game designers, artists and clinicians are finalists for a coveted international award from industry leaders in virtual reality for their vision therapy platform.

Three winners for Breakthrough Auggie Awards, honoring projects “at the intersection of academia and industry,” will be named later this month in Munich at AWE (Augmented World Expo) EU 2018. Sponsors also include IEEE and VR First. The NJIT team competed against 114 teams across the globe to land in the top 20, securing an invitation to the conference, where designers, CEOs and investors from the sector will address approximately 2,000 attendees.

The NJIT project VERVE (Virtual Eye Rotation Vision Exercises), employs virtual reality games to correct an eye motor disorder called convergence insufficiency, in which the muscles that control eye movements do not coordinate to focus on near objects. Because each eye sees images separately, the person experiences double and blurred vision, headaches and difficulty concentrating. The impact on cognition and learning can be severe, particularly in children.

The device, which has potential as a biomarker for concussion, is being tested in children’s hospitals across the country and Alvarez and her alumni NJIT students have started a company, OculoMotor Technologies to commercialize it. Alvarez is the company's chief scientific officer, Mitchell Scheiman, O.D. Ph.D., of Salus University, is the chief clinical officer and John Vito d’Antonio-Bertagnolli '16 MS '17 and Chang Yaramothu, '13 MS '14 Ph.D. '17 are CEO and chief technology officer, respectively. Their collaborators and backers include Salus University, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, New Jersey Health Foundation and the National Science Foundation. 

Tara Alvarez, director of NJIT’s Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory and a co-founder of VERVE.

"These therapies have not evolved much since the 70s, and while they're very good, they're incredibly boring," notes Alvarez, (above), professor of biomedical engineering and founder of NJIT’s Vision and Neural Engineering Laboratory. "We hope to address that by creating virtual reality games that are going to be done correctly because of the equipment, and they'll be fun so people want to do them."

Her diagnostic machine integrates two devices – a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) imaging machine and a video-based eye-tracking system – that together detect how changes in brain activity following an injury, including a mild concussion, correspond with changes in eye movements. Strapped to the head, the fNIRS machine uses light beams to measure blood oxygen levels – indicators of neural activity – in different regions of the brain. An ocular device Alvarez has created, known as a Vision and Neural Assessment Equipment system, measures eye movements and accommodation – the ability to see images clearly, which are promising biomarkers for neurological functions such as visual attention and memory.

The goal is to create a portable medical device that can be carried to sports arenas to measure the severity of a brain injury on the spot, helping the coach and team doctor determine whether an athlete is at risk if sent back into the game. Repeated injuries exacerbate neurological problems down the road.

“The visual neural circuit composes a lot of space in the brain, and is thus easily damaged by a concussion,” explains Alvarez. “In terms of cognitive load, if someone is expending significantly more energy acquiring visual information, then less energy is available for thinking.” 

For the NJIT team, the road to Munich has already provided thrills.

"It was a pleasure fighting for this prestigious award. Going up against tough competitors from big-name international companies and universities brings out the best in our team," said Yaramothu. "I'm happy to see that our team - and NJIT - can compete at that level."

"It's incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to attend the Augmented World Expo in Munich. AWE brings together some of the biggest names in the AR/VR space, and I'm looking forward to meeting so many people with whom I have so much in common," added d’Antonio-Bertagnolli.

The three new Breakthrough Auggie Awards, which expand on AWE EU’s long-established “Best in Show” Awards, are:

Most Innovative Breakthrough: An industry-academia project that introduced a new, novel and unique approach

Most Impactful Breakthrough: An industry-academia project that demonstrates a use case with the potential to dramatically impact the industry

Women XR Laureate: A female researcher or project manager leading an industry-academia project

The winners will be chosen by a jury of industry and academic leaders and announced in a ceremony on 19 October on the main stage of AWE EU 2018 in Munich, Germany.