Your eye care specialists share much of the public's excitement about Google Glass, and they have some medical advice for those trying out the first widely available, eye-level, wearable computer.

Some Glass Explorers, people who used the device before it was offered for sale to the general public, were physicians who found the mini computers uniquely useful for some procedures, especially surgery. New medical uses are in the works or already hitting clinics – research that's bound to explode.

Woman wearing Google Glass

"There's a lot of potential here," said Dr. Francis Price, an Indianapolis ophthalmologist and corneal specialist. "That's what's exciting about this. We're now just dipping our toes in it. There are huge applications that are mind-boggling."

The Google Glass computer is mounted on a frame similar to glasses, called an optical head-mounted display. The mini computer and display sit above one eye, and are activated by voice, touch or head movements. The display is adjustable. It can stay above your eye, in your peripheral vision, or angle down for a more direct view.

Is Google Glass Bad For Your Eyes?

What about daily use? Is it bad for your eyes to wear a small computer on the frame of your glasses? That question became more relevant when Google made Glass available to the general public in April.

The answer from eye care specialists is similar to what one generation heard about TV's and another about computers: The most common eye health problem to watch for is eyestrain from gazing too long at your display – something that can happen with any computer, television or portable device with a screen. Some users also have reported headaches when they first started using Glass.

People, on average, blink about 30,000 times a day or 18 times a minute, which helps keep eyes lubricated. But studies show that when staring at a screen we blink less – by as much as half – which can lead to strain.

Studies with high-speed photography "show if you're looking at a computer screen, your blink rate goes down; this is the reason your eyes may feel tired after a longtime," said Dr. James Salz, a Los Angeles ophthalmologist and refractive surgeon. "The same thing could happen with Google Glass."

Eyestrain is rarely serious, and easily treated – and prevented. Symptoms can include redness, dryness, and itchiness. "Your eyes aren't damaged by doing prolonged computer work, but might get irritated," Salz said.

Dr. Eli Peli, O.D., who consulted for Google on the Glass project, said the device's intended use makes prolonged staring unlikely.

"Historically, there has been ophthalmic literature that expressed concerns about earlier head-mounted displays focused on virtual reality, or more immersive experiences involving videos games, or watching movies, for example," he said. "Glass is not built to be immersive. Instead, it's designed for micro-interactions, or short interactions and glanceable insights that allow the user to get the technology, or updates he needs right when he needs them and then get on with his day."

As for the headaches some users experience with initial Glass use, Peli explains on the tech site BetaBeat, he thinks this is from muscle strain. The eyes aren't used to looking up and to the side for long stretches. Peli and Google said to take it slow with Glass during the adjustment period.

Tips to prevent and treat eyestrain include:

  • Try to blink more when looking at the screen.
  • Every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds: the "20-20-20" rule.
  • Take regular breaks from all screen use, including Glass.
  • Try to get enough sleep at night.
  • Use artificial tears to refresh your eyes when they feel dry.
  • Put a warm washcloth on achy eyes.
  • If you've had LASIK, or any kind of eye surgery, be careful wearing any kind of glasses to prevent accidental pokes.

Google's product recommendations advise that people who've had LASIK surgery ask their doctor before using Glass. This fits with the general advice of protecting your eyes from being touched or bumped in the tender first couple of days of healing after eye surgery, Price said.  

Glass also is not recommended for children under 13.

A somewhat controversial eye health issue some ophthalmologists – including Dr. Price – will be following is whether using Glass for long periods of time contributes to near-sightedness or myopia. Some research suggests a link between the amount of time people view things close up – such as holding a book near your face – and near-sightedness. "In the US most doctors pooh-pooh that looking at things up close makes you near-sighted, but outside the US it's accepted," Price said.

His advice is the same as for eyestrain: "Don't use it continually. Moderation."

Long-term studies on using Glass are welcome, said Dr. Raj Maturi, an ophthalmologist and retina specialist also based in Indianapolis. "This is an area where additional research is needed." 

Doctors Using Google Glass

Some ophthalmologists are investigating the potential use of Glass in their practices.

Many physicians who tested Glass found one of its most beneficial uses was during surgery, to transmit procedures in real time for display on remote screens outside the operating room. This feature has potential as a powerful teaching tool and a way to collaborate or tap expert assistance from afar. Glass will take pictures or videos by a voice command, which can be shared via wireless connection. Most eye surgery is done through high-powered operating microscopes held directly against the eye, with doctors not wearing any kind of external frame glasses, including Glass. But the new technology can be utilized with eye–area plastic surgery that doesn't involve microscopes, Salz says.

Other uses being developed for physicians or already in use include:

  • Displaying patient vital signs or x-rays during procedures,
  • Documenting patient visits via video and converting to digital medical records, and
  • Communicating immediate patient information among various health providers such as from an ER or ambulance to a specialist.

Patient care uses are limited by patient privacy concerns and laws. Patient consent is required before doctors can share personal medical information in any way, including through Glass.  

Still, as Glass becomes less Space Age and more mainstream, new medical uses are sure to be discovered. "I'm excited that this is an efficient way to get information when on the move; many applications are possible with a 'secondary brain' that's so easy to access," Dr. Maturi said.

Dr. Price, for example, is eager to see how Glass, and other head-mounted vision technologies, might help people with low vision, such as magnifying views to compensate for different kinds of vision loss. "This technology may achieve a variety of things," he said.  

Ophthalmologists will be following these developments closely, along with the effects of wearable headset computers on the eyes.

Written by on May 30, 2014

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