Ocutrx, an Irvine, CA startup, is launching a see-through, standalone AR headset early next year, the OcuLenz, which provides vision correction to patients with Advanced Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in adults over 60. “Advanced forms of the disease lead to a devastating and irreversible loss of the highly detailed central vision for which we have no treatment available,” said Dr. Thomas A. Finley, MD, a Vitreoretinal surgeon, and early champion of the OcuLenz, in an interview.

Ocutrx was founded in 2015 by brothers Michael Freeman (CEO/CTO) and Mitchael Freeman when their father, an entrepreneur and former fighter pilot, Brig. Gen. Richard C. Freeman was diagnosed with age-related AMD. In the 80s, Gen. Freeman bought a computer catalog sales company, PC Designs, which then expanded into retail and then government sales. At one point in the mid-90s PC Designs was the largest supplier of computer products to the State of California. With this background and experience with running a large assembly plant, the Freemans, with brother-in-law Chad Boss, developed the first mobile video product which was the foundation for IEEE 802.11(n). Given their success, the General challenged his sons to develop a technology solution to his growing disability.

Dr. Finley was General Freeman’s surgeon, seeing him every 6 months for anti-VEGF shots (which retards the progression of AMD). Gen. Freeman told Dr. Finley that he and his sons were developing a vision correction device for AMD. “Surely Dr. Finley thought my father was losing his mind,” said Ocutrx co-founder and COO, Mitchael Freeman. After Gen. Freeman passed away in 2017, his sons took the first prototype of their OcuLenz headset to Dr. Finley’s office to show him the pixel manipulation software they developed to normalize the vision of an AMD patient. Dr. Finley became the first outside investor in the company.

Both rounds of Ocutrx funding came from Ophthalmologists and surgeons who are intimately aware of the desperate need for a technology solution​ for those suffering from the disease. The company has recently launched Round C to further propel OcuLenz’s commercialization. Ocutrx will produce several thousand units every month by the end of the year, and in 2024 they expect to turn out 5,000 OcuLenz head-mounted displays a month. With twenty million Americans suffering from AMD, they well know the need for a solution.

The journey has been a long one. Although, according to CEO Michael Freeman, the “aha” moment came early, when they discovered their father could see a curved tv screen better than a normal, flat screen. The General could see better because more information was being presented to his peripheral vision. It was then that the brothers, along with their nephew, Jordan Boss, figured out a seemingly simple solution, which was to just move images away from the central vision and to the peripheral where patients could see. The pixel manipulation software they developed was working, but they could not find an AR headset that could address their needs.

“At first we were going to just develop software and use someone else’s hardware, but all of the AR products had such a limited field-of-view at the time (and still now) that we decided to build our own,” said Michael Freeman. “If you are working with patients who have lost up to 20% of their central vision, a 35-degree AR headset isn’t going to do much. That’s why we began working on a 60-degree horizontal and 40-degree vertical headset. We went through about 15 versions, each a little larger FOV than before. Then we found Dr. David Kessler, Ph.D.” Dr. Kessler, is one of the nation’s top photonics and optics engineers, with over 100 optical patents in his name. He worked twenty-four years at Eastman Kodak creating optics for cameras, telescopes, and microscopes and later developed and designed AR/VR systems for twenty companies.

Based on his expertise in AR/VR and recognizing the shortfalls of the available solutions, Kessler conceived a better idea for a reflective and refractive optical engine, which he built in 2020 as Ocutrx’s Chief Optical Engineer. Together with the Freemans, Kessler created what they call a “Near-eye, Pupil-forming Catadioptric Optical Engine.”

The Howe Innovation Center at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston identifies over twenty other companies working on wearables for AMD patients. Some devices are assistive in specific ways, like the OrCam, which clips onto your glasses. It looks at what you’re reading and speaks it. The most common approach is the kind of magnification offered by NuEyes, which is used primarily as a surgical loupe. Neal Weinstock is the founder and CEO of Soliddd AR, whose AMD correcting headset has been in development for ten years. He and his co-founder, Berkeley professor emeritus Richard Muller, are planning to bring a lower-cost headset to market in the near future. Following a $1.3 M seed round, Soliddd is raising $2 M to go to market with their design. The OcuLenz is taking a very different approach utilizing pixel manipulation software, with a patented near-eye optical engine.

Ocutrx has developed close relationships with specialists and surgeons, many of whom are investors. They’ve encouraged the company to address pain points in other aspects of their work that only medical practitioners would know. “During the COVID lockdown, our supply chain for developing the OcuLenz AR headset crashed,” explained CEO Freeman. “We pivoted to develop the OR-Bot, which is what surgeons at over 16 professional conferences had been asking for. Because of the poor ergonomics associated with the Standard Optical Microscope (SOM), a 100-year-old design, fifteen percent of retinal surgeons end up needing orthopedic surgery.” The OR-Bot addresses this issue by allowing the surgeon to dictate their position of comfort and allow the visualization system to conform around him or her.

The OcuLenz for AMD will have an MSRP of $6,000. Medicare will cover approximately $1,800 of the purchase price. Low-vision centers, University Hospitals, low-vision industry distributors, and the company website will be the primary sales channels for the new AR device. A purpose-built Snapdragon XR2 processor from Qualcomm Technologies powers the OcuLenz. Ocutrx is releasing a Unity SDK in early 2024, enabling third parties to develop applications for the OcuLenz.

“The OcuLenz, powered by the Snapdragon XR2 Platform, is a great example of how XR technologies can bring positive change to people’s lives. We applaud Ocutrx for tapping the power of XR to bring their unique high-resolution solution to patient care,” said Jeff Henckels, director of XR product management at Qualcomm, in a statement.

Freeman says games, entertainment, enterprise, and medical applications can be built with the company’s optics hardware and software.

Charlie Fink is the author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse,” (2017) and “Convergence” (2019). In the early 90s, Fink was EVP & COO of VR pioneer Virtual World Entertainment. He teaches at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

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