Blind World Magazine

A machine for people who are nearly sightless.

The Boston Globe.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006.

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff

GROTON -- ``If you don't see," says Elizabeth Goldring , sitting at the kitchen table of her farmhouse , ``seeing is a very intense and special activity."

Goldring, 61, who is legally blind, is describing the effects of a machine she's helped invent and hopes to make available to others like herself: a ``seeing machine" for people who are nearly sightless.

``Not seeing is a drag, but keeping one's visual memory alive is crucial," continues Goldring, a senior fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies and a poet and artist who has described her own battle with blindness in moving, often harrowing detail.

So far, according to Goldring, feedback from a test group that has used the new device -- formally known as a Retinal Imaging Machine Vision System, or RIMVS -- has been ``extremely encouraging."

The machine is a modified video projector that borrows technologically from the scanning laser op h thalmoscope (SLO), a sophisticated diagnostic tool used to measure retina function. The SLO allows an ophthalmologist to project an image directly onto a patient's retina -- the layer of light-sensitive nerve tissue covering the back of the eyeball -- to determine its functionality.

Goldring's prototype, developed with the help of scientists, engineers, and artists at MIT and Harvard, employs light-emitting diodes in place of lasers, making it potentially far more affordable than the SLO and much less bulky . Its projected cost is around $4,000, depending on how it is manufactured and marketed commercially, compared to $100,000 or more for a laser ophthalmoscope. The newest version of the machine also has color capability, unlike a previous version, but is not designed with portability in mind.

According to the National Eye Institute, more than 3.4 million Americans older than 40 are either legally blind or suffer from severe visual impairment. With the ``seeing machine," those people with minimal (although some) retinal function are able to tap into a rich visual environment made up of images, words, faces, even building layouts and Internet sites. Goldring's model, which she keeps at MIT, measures 12 inches high, 6 inches wide, and 6 inches deep, and was recently the subject of an article in Optometry, the Journal of the American Optometric Association . In one experiment, a team of researchers transmitted video images of their own faces over the Internet, through a computer hooked up to the machine, and then directly onto Golding's retina, where she was able to see them for the first time.

In practical terms, says Goldring, even if the machine cannot empower the visually impaired to read a long book or cross the street unaided, ``It can keep their visual sense active, to help them see a face or an architectural model. And if you don't see, but you have seen in the past, that experience is really quite important."

But it isn't just the machine's engineering that has brought Goldring a flurry of attention recently. She is a writer and artist by training, not a scientist, and has used her own struggle with blindness to illuminate what lasers and lenses, no matter how powerful, cannot penetrate .

``I'm not an engineer. I couldn't have built the machine," she notes. ``But I could tell them what I needed."

For more than a decade, Goldring has been designing a specialized ``visual language" to help preserve visual memory in the severely sight-impaired. Mixing symbols, images, letters, and words, her vocabulary is uniquely adaptable to the new machine. At the same time, Goldring has been creating an impressive archive of retina prints -- digitized images that record not an object itself, but the composite image the retina understands when it processes an object -- that have been captured by an ophthalmoscope and transformed into what she calls ``visual poems."

`` Not seeing enables me to see vital details of life and metaphor that I might miss," Goldring wrote for a grant application. ``This particular visual acuity may permit me to be an extra eye to the fully-sighted." Her preoccupation as a poet with themes of mobility, aesthetics, and relationships, she observed, ``made me cognizant of the impediments" faced by the sight-challenged.

Is she on some sort of crusade? Goldring smiles. ``Oh, yes, I am," she says across the table, a glass of iced tea in her hand. ``My major point is, there's lots of new technology that could be used to help the visually impaired, and so far it only isolates us further. You get an iPod, for instance, and the buttons are too small, or they can't be seen or felt. Design does not need to be this way."

Dr. Robert Webb , a senior scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston and inventor of the SLO, says Goldring's perspective as an artist has been enormous ly valuable to researchers and technicians like himself, who are good at building gadgets but not so good at reading the needs and problems faced by patients who use them.

``Elizabeth is one of the most persuasive people I've ever met," Webb says. ``She simply won't give up when it comes to working toward something that can help herself. And help others."

Out of the darkness

A native of Lincoln, Neb., Goldring graduated from Smith College and taught art in St. Louis before moving on to Chicago and Washington, where she designed museum exhibits. In 1973 she joined the staff of Boston's Children's Museum. Two years later, she became a fellow at MIT's Center For Advanced Visual Studies, and, in 1977, earned a master's degree in education from Harvard University. By the mid-1970s, however, her vision had begun to degenerate markedly, primarily due to a condition known as diabetic retinopathy.

As the disease progressed, her eyeballs began to hemorrhage, and her vision deteriorate d further despite several operations and rounds of treatment. At one point, doctors recommended 12 months of bed rest to stabilize her vision loss.

``I was very bored and couldn't stand to listen to anything, even books on tape," Goldring recalls. ``It was terrifying and frustrating."

To survive, she began documenting her loss through ``eye journals" dictated into a tape recorder. A major source of support were her MIT colleagues, one of whom, Otto Piene , an artist, writer, and former director of the school's vision studies center , became Goldring's husband as well. ``He described things in such palpable detail, he really pushed me to keep my visual sense alive, even though I couldn't see."

``Laser Treatment," Goldring's first book of poems, was published in 1983. Another MIT colleague, video artist Vin Grabill , collaborated with her on a 1988 film about blindness titled ``The Inner Eye: From the Inside Out. " They were inspired, says Goldring, by a public television documentary about blindness in which none of the insight came from blind people themselves.

Goldring first discovered the SLO's potential during an evaluation at the Schepens Institute in the early 1990s . She was blind at this point -- treatment has since restored limited ``useful vision" to her left eye -- and was excited when doctors beamed a picture of a stick-figure turtle onto her retina.

``When I discovered that I could actually see some of the test pictures," Goldring would later write, ``I asked if I could try a word -- the word sun. . . . It was the first word I had been able to read for a long time. For me, a writer who was beginning to forget the shape of words, this was truly a significant moment."

She quickly reached out to Webb to see if she could do more with the machine.

``She was so tremendously moved by this," Webb recalls. ``It got her hooks into the whole SLO world and [she] went from there."

Having persuaded one manufacturer to give her an SLO to use, she began prospecting for grant money to fund work on a more affordable machine. After many dead ends, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed to underwrite the ``seeing machine" project, which has also been supported by the work of more than 30 MIT undergraduates and grad students .

Meanwhile, Goldring published a second volume of poetry (``Without Warning" ) and continued to refine her retina prints. About 10 years ago, Hilda Raz , editor of the journal Prairie Schooner , received a package of poems and images from Goldring.

``While I liked the poems a lot," says Raz, ``I was most struck by these incredible images. Rather than thinking about how they were made, I was simply taken to the place Elizabeth is. She's an extraordinarily gifted visual artist."

Goldring continues to lecture widely at conferences and hopes to organize a series of MIT workshops and seminars on sight-impaired artists. ``Eye, " her latest collection of poems and prints, was published four years ago. In it she writes, ``I believe that visual communication for people with impaired sight should rely on the same principles of economy and intensity that guide my poems -- saying a lot with as few strokes as possible."

Laser Treatment

(by Elizabeth Goldring, 1980)

He is nailing light into my eye one nail at a time 219 says I'm doing fine He etches an eye on my eye: eclipses blisters sun spots grey

suns spiders cobblers jewelers thieves go blind eye's a navel in Guadalajara boulevards are strings on a package.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by e-mail at

End of article.

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