AR headsets for the visually impaired and healthcare professionals
Freeman cut his tech teeth in the 1980s working at PC Designs, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based computer company owned by his father, Brigadier General Richard Freeman.
The company was a notable first mover. "We developed mobile video," he says. After selling that IP to Samsung in 2003, he found himself embroiled in litigation between Apple and Samsung.
A decade later, Richard was suffering from advanced macular degeneration and unable to see what was right in front of him. "He was a fighter pilot, and he went from going twice the speed of sound to not being able to read emails," says Freeman. "For the first time in my life, I saw this warrior-type leader get depressed."
It led the younger Freeman to develop video technology that would help his father see again. Inspired by the curved televisions of the day, he came up with software and a headset in 2013 that helped his father see what was right in front of him again.
"The first thing he said when he put it on was, 'Oh, your nose is still big,' because he hadn't seen my face in so long," chuckles Freeman.
Richard Freeman "made us promise that we would turn it into a real company" before he passed away in 2014, he adds.
By 2016, that company, Irvine, California-based Ocutrx, had turned the one-off into a prototype with a transparent display with embedded augmented reality (AR) and two cameras. After starting with off-the-shelf headsets and the plan to develop software around them, Freeman realized he needed a headset with a broader field of vision and became a hardware manufacturer as well.
Slated for release in early 2021, the resulting product is the Oculenz AMD. Here's how it works: The user takes a five- to seven-minute test, clicking when "shooting stars" appear on the periphery. The result delivers the central images to the periphery of the user's vision with a mere five-millisecond delay.
"We leave every part of the video in there," explains Freeman. "We just move it out of that area. . . . The brain puts it back together like a full image." For people who hadn't been able to read a book for years, the effect is immediate, he adds. "Instantly, they're reading again."
The idea was ahead of the requisite technology. High-resolution video with a five-millisecond delay was a necessity for the Oculenz AMD. "That's moving the pixels out so fast so the eye can't detect it and you don't get sick," says Freeman. "That didn't exist until within the last year."
Oculenz AMD headsets will sell for $6,000, and Medicare will cover a significant part of the cost. ORLenz headsets for the surgeons will run about $9,000.
After an initial plan with a partner in China, production was moved to a facility leased from Spectrum AMT in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "It has all of the capabilities for electronics manufacturing, cabling, wiring, pick-and-place, soldering, all the 'gee whiz' things you would expect from a modern manufacturing plant," says Freeman. "We can do about 1,000 complete assemblies a day there, and we'll be upping that capability the first of next year." He estimates Ocutrx will hire about 15 to 20 new employees in Colorado by late 2020.
Ocutrx has several other targets beyond macular degeneration, including surgical and telemedicine AR headsets. "As of COVID in 2020, Medicare and Medicaid have significantly upped the reimbursement for remote telepresence," says Freeman. For surgeons, "not only can you see the patient through our headset and get vital information, but the surgeon can take a pre-recorded 3D MRI and have it out in space and, with a hand gesture, change the rotation and aspect ratio," he adds.
For the visually impaired, Ocutrx is working on another headset in partnership with Qualcomm that "can map in 3D everything that exists with 90 percent accuracy up to 50 feet," he adds. "We use the 7 million identified objects that we get with the Android system, so our headset knows a bicycle from a car, a person from a package, a backpack from a grocery sack. . . . People can query the headset and say, 'Where's the door?'" The product will integrate with UPC codes to aid with shopping.
Freeman and his partners self-funded the startup of Ocutrx with a network of largely retinal surgeons. "We've got plenty of funding and plenty of runway," he says. "We're looking at an IPO early next year."
Challenges: COVID-19 set the release of the Oculenz AMD back six months. "We looked at the China supply chain and said, 'We want to repatriate that as much as possible,'" says Freeman. "It's going to be easier and more secure."
He adds, "Right now, we're still using the China supply chain. By the second quarter of next year, we'll be shifting that over and have Colorado Springs fully operational."
"Building the pipeline with pre-orders" is another immediate challenge for the company.
Opportunities: "We're at the right place at the right time for the interesting intersection of healthcare and consumer products," says Freeman, citing 13 million cases of end-stage macular degeneration in the U.S. alone and increasing Medicare reimbursements for vision-related technology.
Worldwide, there are about 200 million people who suffer from macular degeneration; Ocutrx recently opened a London office to approach the European market. The low-vision headsets have an even wider market.
For the surgery headsets, Freeman says, "We've had such a huge response from chains of hospitals and from hospitals internationally that want to incorporate this headset into a surgery visualization theater."
Needs: "Continued acceptance by the medical community," says Freeman, along with "keeping up with the technology."