Alex Damarjian has spent his professional career working on games benefitting young children—he has worked with Nickelodeon on titles such as Go Diego Go! Safari Rescue—but he had an urge to do more.
Damarjian, a technology and humanities Ph.D. candidate at Illinois Tech, has developed a low-cost, cutting-edge testing tool for pediatric ophthalmologists using a platform familiar to many kids: the Nintendo 3DS. The testing program, named PDI Check, allows ophthalmologists to test for visual acuity, stereo vision or depth perception, and color blindness. Damarjian began developing the tool as his thesis project.
“My sister is a pediatric ophthalmologist,” Damarjian says. “At a conference she met another ophthalmologist presenting on how games can help people. They were chatting and she ended up connecting [ophthalmologist Bob Arnold] and I together.”
Arnold, a doctor at Alaska Children’s Eye and Strabismus, worked with partner optometrist Kyle Smith to guide Damarjian’s programming of PDI Check.
Arnold says PDI check is revolutionary in that it is cheaper and easier to use for both doctor and patient.
Currently, most pediatric ophthalmologists use a series of cards and eye patches to diagnose vision issues in young children. Doctors have to carefully watch how a child’s eyes move to diagnose issues. PDI Check utilizes more accurate eye-tracking technology, and doctors can analyze the footage afterward.
“Careful screening of near vision takes time, and some children do not like patching an eye to ensure visual acuity in the other eye or wearing goggles to test stereo,” says Arnold. “PDI Check allows us to screen kids without needing patches or goggles, and it does so in about half the time.”
To test for all the issues PDI Check screens would normally cost up to $500. The Nintendo 3DS is about $200.
After a year of development, doctors Arnold and Smith began donating 3DS systems to pediatric ophthalmologists in Lebanon, Myanmar, and Venezuela, where the doctors had been providing volunteer medical care. More than 100 children have been screened with the tool so far.
“The next thing for us is we’re looking at a treatment tool for amblyopia and stereopsis,” Damarjian says, describing a disorder affecting depth perception that can be treated only through vision therapy. “That’s in this game called Leo vs. Robots… Parts of [the game] challenge the kid’s vision to help strengthen it.”
According to Arnold, amblyopia affects roughly 2–3 percent of children.
Moving forward, the team hopes to create more games and work with Nintendo to more widely market PDI Check.
“PDI Check has plans to make more games, for infants, for refined measurement and for treatment of eye diseases,” Arnold says. “Alex is at the leading edge of these breakthrough developments.”