It’s taken a lot of work for Stephen Hicks to become a world-leader in using hi-technology to help people with visual impairments, but his inspiration came early.
“I remember getting my first distance glasses when I was about 10 and looking up at the stars,” he says. “For the first time, I could see them as pinpoints of light. Later, I became interested in the puzzle of why we see the world as we do. The more I learned, the deeper the puzzle went.”
That fascination took Stephen into an early career advancing and creating technologies around retinal prosthetics and electrodes for brain implantation. In 2008, he moved to Oxford University where he ran a research lab in human and computer vision. In 2016 that research became OXSIGHT Ltd, the medical tech company Stephen co-founded to produce products to improve sight for visually impaired people.
“When you’re a young researcher starting out, you just want to make your brilliant thing. There’s a belief that if you build it they will come,” he says. “But as an entrepreneur, you learn that people aren’t looking for a new gadget for its own sake. They might be interested in the cool features for a few moments but in the long term people are really only interested in products that help them with their regular life goals. It needs to be easy to use, and if it is a bit out there, then it also needs to be cheap.”
Stephen realised an important part of entrepreneurship is effective communication and building relationships with people who could help him, and who he could help in return. He credits his time at the University for developing this world view.
“In the Department of Psychology, I was really encouraged to knock on the doors of professors. They'd always give you the benefit of a few minutes to chat. Then, when I came to Oxford, I’d still knock on doors and met some real leaders in their fields. To me it seemed that my UK-trained colleagues hadn’t seen that before. I put that down to the openness of the University of Sydney.”
Part of his decision to do a Bachelor of Science at the University came from the lifelong interest in science fiction and futuristic fields like cybernetics, robotics and artificial intelligence. As he immersed himself in his studies, which had sidelines in history and philosophy, Stephen found himself drawn towards neuroscience and the new technologies that were changing that landscape dramatically.
“I was fascinated with retinal prosthetics, where electrodes are attached to the back of the eye to produce artificial sight,” he says of the award-winning work. “At Oxford I began working with surgeons who were pioneering this technology and I quickly realised the limitations of the state-of-the-art. Apart from the great cost, the prosthetics at that time had only about 100 pixels. This wasn’t nearly enough for what we would call sight. With what I had learned about computer vision I began to wonder if we could do it better?”
He turned his attention to the new field augmented reality technologies, “We realised that non-invasive smart glasses could work for people of all ages with no need for surgery, making it all so much cheaper and far less risky.”
People value the freedom to be spontaneous, and sight loss often steals that independence. I have found that people aren’t looking for help at work or travel so much as for a myriad of smaller, personal moments like seeing the change of seasons or picking up a book you thought you’d left too late to read.
In the years since then, Stephen and his team have produced ever more sophisticated electronic glasses, “Day to day, it's a lot of development of software, testing prototypes and talking to customers,” he says.
A key fact that makes augmented reality useful for Hicks is that most people with visual impairment have a degree of residual vision.
A good example is macular degeneration. Mostly age related, it starts with damage to inner layers of the retina called the macula. This causes a blind spot to appear at the centre of the field of vision, impairing eyesight and leaving the person with only peripheral vision.
Stephen’s innovations involves smart glasses with a camera, displays, a small computer and a battery. The camera catches real-time images which it magnifies and enhances for display on what are, in effect, small mobile phone screens on the inside of the glasses. These screens are placed so the images appear to the part of the retina that is still functioning, giving a useful level of visual information for the user.
One part of the research process that he obviously highly values, is meeting the people with sight-impairments who test his prototypes. As he talks, you can sense how important hearing their stories is to him because along with his love of science fiction, Stephen has always had a strong drive to make things better for people and the world.
“People value the freedom to be spontaneous, and sight loss often steals that independence. I have found that people aren’t looking for help at work or travel so much as for a myriad of smaller, personal moments like seeing the change of seasons or picking up a book you thought you’d left too late to read. It’s about reading music for the choir or watching TV. It’s about seeing or your partner’s new haircut and seeing your grandkids’ smile.”
Congratulations to Dr Stephen Hicks, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Nominations for the 2024 Alumni Awards are now open. Learn more.