Novel research at the University of Sheffield has produced a virtual reality smartphone app to allow healthy individuals to experience the debilitating effects of Nystagmus, an eye condition that can be acquired through conditions such as stroke and multiple sclerosis.

Nystagmus is an eye movement disorder where the eyes wobble uncontrollably, leading to significant visual impairment. If nystagmus develops early in life, the brain often adapts to the eye movements but for those who develop the condition after infancy, the effects are debilitating. To them the world is in constant motion as their eyes move erratically, this symptom is called oscillopsia. Individuals who have a stroke, multiple sclerosis or brain injury may develop nystagmus and oscillopsia.

It is difficult for those without nystagmus to appreciate the condition; a comment often made by those who suffer with nystagmus. A collaboration between Medical Physics and the Academic Unit of Ophthalmology and Orthoptics at the University of Sheffield sought to help others understand nystagmus and the difficulties of living with it. A 6-month project funded by Sheffield Hospitals Charity produced a virtual reality smartphone app which simulated the effects of having acquired nystagmus.

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The app uses real eye tracking data from nystagmus patients, obtained with state of the art equipment, to deliver an authentic experience of the condition. The app can be viewed on most modern smartphones but to achieve a first-hand experience requires a virtual reality headset, in which the smartphone can be inserted. Virtual reality immerses the user in a virtual 3D world which can be explored using natural head movements. The nystagmus eye movements are imposed onto each eye to provide the wearer of the headset with a realistic, evocative experience and hence a greater appreciation of the condition.

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The app has been positively received from a wide range of people.

Healthy individuals exposed to the condition for the first time stated: “I couldn’t live like that!

A parent of a daughter with nystagmus when attending a showcase event declared: “Wow! We came along today to use the headset as my 4-year-old daughter has Nystagmus. It was amazing to be able to see how people with Nystagmus see. I have to say that I felt quite ill using it. People with Nystagmus are truly amazing! I feel very fortunate that we got the opportunity to use this and to speak to the people involved. Truly amazing. Thank you.

A nystagmus sufferer commented: “Fantastic, should be available for all to see

The app aims to raise awareness and help individuals with nystagmus to communicate their condition. We hope it is useful to occupational therapists working with these individuals and enables them to better understand the impact of the disorder.

The app is available as a free download for both Android and iPhone. Please search the relevant app store for ‘Nystagmus Oscillopsia Sim VR’. If you would like any further information please contact David Randall, drandall1@Sheffield.ac.uk.