#11: James Blaha’s Diplopia VR game helped him see in 3D in the real world for the first time of his life. Neuroplasticity & VR therapy for lazy eye

James Blaha had never been able to see in 3D before. He has strabismus or more commonly known as crossed eye, which has prevented him from being able to have each eye look at the same point in space. This can lead to lazy eye or Amblyopia and cause a loss of depth perception.

james-blaha2It used to be common knowledge that there was a critical period to treat these conditions needed to be successfully treated between the ages of 8-10 years old, otherwise it was believed that the visual system would be hard-wired for the rest of their life. However, there have been a number of neuroplasticity studies over the past couple of years that indicated that the brain was more malleable than we previously thought and that it was possible to have effective treatments for lazy eye.

James had been following this neuroplasticity research and decided to start a virtual reality, side project with the Oculus Rift to put some of these studies into practice. He created some scenes that increased the intensity to his lazy eye and decreased the intensity to his good eye, and he was blown away at being able to see in 3D for the first time in his life. Encouraged with his success, he continued to develop a series of games that he played for over 20 hours over the course of 3 weeks until he was able to see in 3D in the real world for the first time in his life.

James tells his story of creating his Diplopia virtual reality game and what type of research interest he’s receiving. He also had a very successful Indiegogo campaign, which enabled him to have other people try Diplopia as well. He talks about other people who have had similar success with being able to see in 3D for the first time, and that there are a number of controlled research studies under way to verify these results.

James says that what gets him excited about the future applications of virtual reality is that for the first time ever, we’re able to finely control the input given to the brain. This means that we’re going to be able to control human perception on a precise level and that it will have more applications than anyone imagines.

It makes me wonder that with the neuroplasticity of our brains and the principle of spaced repetition of controlled perceptual input through virtual reality, then what other types of nascent capabilities will we be able to unlock for ourselves? There are already implications for Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for PTSD, cerebral palsy, autism, pain management and beyond.

I agree with James that we’re just starting to scratch the surface for what’s possible with the medical & psychological applications for virtual reality. There’s been a lot of research happening in these areas, but I have a feeling that it will become a lot more popular now that there will be affordable VR devices available to consumers for the first time.

Reddit discussion here.


  • 0:00 – Intro & developing Diplopia to help with lazy eye, and being able see in 3D for the first time
  • 1:00 – Being able to see in 3D in the real world after 20 hours of playing across 3 weeks
  • 1:33 – Who’s heard of this breakthrough so far?
  • 2:02 – What do you have to do to maintain 3D vision in the real world? Similar to a weak muscle
  • 2:35 – Did you imagine that you would be able to get to this point in the beginning? Reading neuroplasticity research studies related to lazy eye.
  • 3:09 – Have there been others who have been able to successfully see in 3D? Example of eliminating double vision. Testimonial video from Dillon
  • 3:47 – Spaced repetition bringing improvement in vision.
  • 3:58 – What is the optimal time for learning using this? 15 minutes every other day.
  • 4:26 – What was the previous “common knowledge” thinking about the critical age for when the visual system would hard-wired? It used to be 8-10 years old until neuroplasticity studies started coming out. Traditional methods of treating lazy eye don’t really work.
  • 5:20 – What other research interest has Diplopia received?
  • 5:55 – More details about the game and the game design, and how you make it fun. Take advantage of the brain’s goal and reward system. The goal of the game is to improve your vision.
  • 6:37 – Two miniature games at the moment, and building out more.
  • 7:00 – What gets you excited about the potential for Virtual Reality? Able to finely control the input to the brain, and being able to control perception on a fine level will have more applications than anyone imagines.
  • 7:49 – What’s next for Diplopia? Get it out and help as many people as they can.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.019] James Blaha: My name is James Blaha, and I'm making a piece of software called Diplopia, which is a virtual reality game for people who have lazy eye to improve their vision. So what we do is we use the Oculus Rift right now and we take single objects in the scene and increase the brightness to the weak eye of a person with lazy eye and decrease the brightness to the strong eye. And in most people who have lazy eye, what happens is their brain has learned to disregard or suppress the information coming from their weak eye. Usually nothing too much is wrong with the eye, but the eye is not receiving that information. And so by increasing the brightness, we break through that suppression right away. And in my case, the first time I did it, I saw in 3D for the first time in my life.

[00:00:58.630] Kent Bye: Wow, so this is something where you've sort of been living your life, your whole life, and never being able to see in 3D, and you developed a game to be able to see in 3D, and you're able to do it, it sounds like.

[00:01:08.280] James Blaha: Yeah, so after that experience, you know, I kind of fleshed out the game a bit more, started playing it myself. Over about 20 hours of gameplay spread out over five weeks, I went from my left eye being almost totally suppressed. If my right eye was open, I wasn't using my left eye, to having 3D vision. Now I can use both my eyes together at the same time in the real world and perceive depth when before I never could.

[00:01:32.718] Kent Bye: Wow. That's pretty amazing. So this seems like a pretty big breakthrough. I'm just curious about who's heard about this so far.

[00:01:41.820] James Blaha: We had an Indiegogo campaign. We were covered on a bunch of tech blogs during that, Engadget, Wired, TechCrunch, a few others. And we've been talking to a lot more press recently too. We have a couple of optometrists on our board of advisors. I've been talking to a lot of doctors about making sure we do this the right way. So yeah.

[00:02:02.503] Kent Bye: Awesome, and so is this something that you have to continually play your game to keep that going or is it something that once you have 3D vision in the real world that you just have it?

[00:02:12.660] James Blaha: So it's kind of like a weak muscle, at least theoretically, where if you strengthen that muscle enough to where you're using it every day, you don't need to do exercises for that particular muscle anymore. So once you kind of get over that hump where you're using the eye in normal seeing conditions together with the other one, you don't really have to play the game anymore and it should stick.

[00:02:34.888] Kent Bye: I see. So I imagine that you were aiming to get to this point, but do you think that you could actually get to that point?

[00:02:41.222] James Blaha: You know, in the beginning, it was just a side project I had. You know, I just was kind of reading studies about plasticity in the brain, especially with regards to lazy eye. I had seen some articles that had come out about it. So I just kind of got interested in it. And when I first saw in 3D, that was when I was like, especially because it happened instantly. The first time I tried it, that was when I was like, you know, I have to really work on this, see how far it can go, see how much we can push it and figure out what's going on here.

[00:03:09.918] Kent Bye: And have there been other people that have also used it and now are able to see in 3D?

[00:03:14.447] James Blaha: Yeah, so we shipped the alpha version to our Indiegogo backers and several of those people have had pretty much the same experience I've had. They've said that they're able to see in 3D in the real world now. One person has had double vision for 30 years and is now able to fuse on objects close up and far away and have 3D when he never did. And that gets rid of the double vision also. And every person who played it for longer than three hours reported improvements in their vision.

[00:03:47.749] Kent Bye: So three hours total or at the same time?

[00:03:49.935] James Blaha: No, not at the same time. So we, um, people try to play 15 to 30 minutes every day, every other day, something like that. So it was three hours spread out.

[00:03:58.206] Kent Bye: I see. So I think you would imagine that it would be over time as well in terms of just, you know, not doing it all at once, but that spaced repetition component of it.

[00:04:05.859] James Blaha: Yeah. Um, we've gotten some advice from our optometrists about this, especially the people who are more familiar, you know, with the cognitive aspects of it. And, uh, I guess the optimum kind of time is at least what they tell me is about 15 minutes every other day and definitely don't take a break for more than two days. So that's kind of the optimum sweet spot for learning.

[00:04:29.676] Kent Bye: You had mentioned something about, oh, they had told me that after you're 18, it's just not going to happen. What specifically were you told that there was a certain age limit that it was just going to be hard to surpass that?

[00:04:39.884] James Blaha: Yeah. So before these studies about plasticity came out in the last couple of years, kind of the common knowledge was that the visual system was hardwired by a critical age, what they call a critical age, which is kind of eight to 10 years old. The treatments they typically give people who have lazy eye when their kids are like patching, they'll patch the good eye. You can't really see that well when you patch the good eye, and it also never teaches the child to use both eyes at the same time, which is kind of a critical component of using two eyes together. And so that stuff often doesn't work before they hit 9 or 10, about 50% of the time. Since it turns out that the brain's actually a lot more plastic than anyone thought, it can be, you know, fixed in adulthood.

[00:05:21.310] Kent Bye: What other kind of research interest have you gotten? Are there doctors and professors that are interested in kind of taking this Oculus Rift game that you've developed, Diplopia, and starting using it in clinical contexts?

[00:05:33.657] James Blaha: Yeah, we have actually three universities who have expressed interest in doing studies with our software. Two pretty big vision therapy clinics also want to do studies with our software. So our next big step is to get these studies going to kind of prove the efficacy under controlled conditions and we'll see what we can do after that.

[00:05:56.160] Kent Bye: And so tell me a bit about the game and the game design and what you were trying to do to kind of make it more fun than say other exercises that you may be doing.

[00:06:05.422] James Blaha: Our theory behind making a game out of it is that, especially more recently, games have been more and more designed to take advantage of the brain's goal and reward system. So games are designed to keep people playing the game. And so what we want to do is have the goal of the game be improving your vision. So if you win the game, that means improving your vision. And then use all these tricks like achievements and scores and things like that to keep people encouraged enough to spend the time to play the game.

[00:06:35.763] Kent Bye: I see. And so how many different levels do you have then?

[00:06:39.125] James Blaha: Right now we have two mini-games. We're planning on adding more. And we have, you know, ten levels in one of the mini-games and a couple levels. We're still building out the other game as we keep working on it.

[00:06:51.248] Kent Bye: OK, you said too many, but I guess you meant two miniature games?

[00:06:54.789] James Blaha: Yeah, two mini games, not too many. Yeah.

[00:06:58.831] Kent Bye: OK. Great. And so, yeah, when it comes to virtual reality, then I guess, you know, what is it about for you that gets you excited about the potential for what else could be done with it?

[00:07:10.304] James Blaha: But before we had this technology available, before we had virtual reality available, especially so cheaply, we haven't been able to finally control the input we're giving to people's brains, right? So I think we have so many more options now with this technology and how we're showing new information, experiences. sights, sounds, and eventually more than that, right? And that's going to have so many more applications than anyone expects, I think. It's going to be a really interesting time when we're able to really control perception on a fine level.

[00:07:47.925] Kent Bye: And finally, what's next for Diplopia?

[00:07:50.506] James Blaha: We want to expand the game, get some studies done, and we want to get it out to people. We want to improve people's vision as much as we can. And so our goal is to get it out and help as many people as we possibly can.

[00:08:04.912] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thanks a lot.

[00:08:06.533] James Blaha: Thank you.

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