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Seeing is
believing
 

How a new eye-tracking vision tool from Praxi is helping people see new possibilities.

Seeing is Believing

How a new eye-tracking vision tool from Praxi is helping people see new possibilities.

”I told James Cameron that I could see 3D...my reputation was that I could discern the quality. But to me, the world was flat. Always has been.”

— Jeff Gomez

“I lied to James Cameron.”

Jeff Gomez, the producer, president, and CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment has expanded the marvelous film worlds of Men in Black, Avatar, Halo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into their own digital kingdoms online, in theme parks, on mobile phone platforms, and in gaming. 

While he spends his days in the Alpha Centauri star system of Avatar or the interstellar neighborhood of Halo, his own life is rooted in a fantastical universe, as well, with a love story at its genesis. 

Like Peter Parker, his narrative starts in New York City. A very young nice Jewish girl in an economically depressed neighborhood in the Lower East Side meets a Puerto Rican immigrant. The girl, Gomez’s mother, becomes pregnant and has to leave home. She gives birth in 1963 in a hospital next to the shelter for wayward young women she had been sent to. 

The complicated birth required forceps, an antiquated medical tool that looks like salad tongs used to grasp and guide babies through the birth canal. The depression of these forceps paralyzed the left side of Gomez’s face and damaged his optical nerve, leaving him legally blind in his right eye. 

Gomez grew up hiding within his own fantasy world. And those epic battles across magical realms made him wildly successful in his career, allowing him to become a creator for the likes of the Walt Disney Company, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Microsoft. But while he was developing multi-dimensional worlds, he couldn’t actually see in multiple dimensions. 

“I told James Cameron that I could see 3D. The work we did on Avatar was contingent on our ability to see what he was doing, and all of Avatar was in 3D, even the pre-release files. My team members could see the proper image, but it all looked like a mess to me. The studio told me that to do my job I needed to discern the quality. But I had to fake it because I had monocular vision. To me, the world was flat. Always has been.” 

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The Eyes Don’t Lie

Vision is more than two eyeballs on a stick. Adopted from a mentor, this phrase has become a sort of mantra for Oregon-based optometrist Dr. Bruce Wojciechowski, who uses it to reflect his view on the value of vision care in the United States. With more than 40 years in providing vision therapy services and vision rehabilitation following traumatic brain injuries, Wojciechowski has the experience to back this opinion.

Our eyes do a lot of processing for our brains. “Eighty percent of the knowledge that comes into our world is through our visual system,” says Wojciechowski, “and it’s more than just the two eyes. It’s how the eyes and the brain integrate themselves.”

Binocular vision integrates with all our other senses. It enables us to identify what we see, and tells us where we are in space, helping with balance, mobility, and perception, says Wojciechowski. Eye-hand coordination, depth perception, and peripheral vision are also connected with the human vision process.

And with the right type of assessment tools, how we see can help identify early signs of dementia (like Alzheimer’s) and other neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Binocular vision integrates with all of our other senses, allows us to identify what we see, and tells us where we are in space, helping with balance, mobility, and perception,

A DARK UNIVERSE

Gomez not being able to see beyond two dimensions was more than just a mere inconvenience. It was more than the difference between the flat 2D of Cowboy Bebop and the full CGI of Monsters, Inc. With monocular vision, Gomez’s right eye could see light and large objects as blurred smears, but it made living difficult. “I’d walk into door frames. I couldn’t catch a ball. Driving was out of the question.” 

His mother took on extensive efforts to correct his vision. She took him to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary where he was diagnosed with “lazy eye” (amblyopia) and had to wear a patch over his good eye to exercise his right eye. He then had a series of corrective surgeries to realign his eyes, so his eye wouldn’t float to the right. “It was horrifying and no fun at all,” Gomez remembers, “I just wanted to be left alone.” 

And it went deeper than vision. The disfigurations in his face, due to his birth, led to bullying. The chaotic environment led to ongoing trauma and a virulent case of obsessive-compulsive disorder for Gomez. It worsened as he approached adolescence. “I was worried about what was coming through the door, what was going to come through the window,” he says. “What was behind cabinet doors, and in the kitchen drawers? These intrusive thoughts became more nightmarish. They were super dark.”

“I had to live two lives because of fear and shame. I became someone detached from reality, living in a fantasy world. I could spout the lore of Tolkien’s Middle-earth,” says Gomez. But inner city living was hard. He lost himself in Times Square grindhouses, and found himself in places inappropriate for a teenager, often in life-threatening situations. 

But the philosophies of his fictional heroes — Sherlock Holmes, Gandalf, and Mr. Spock — would eventually lead him out of metaphorical and literal dark places. Gomez became a writer, working in fantasy and adventure games. He developed video games and used his understanding of the relationship between audience and intellectual property to develop an expertise in transmedia storytelling — allowing for fictional story worlds to play out across multiple media platforms — eventually launching his company, Starlight Runner.

“I had to live two lives because of fear and shame. I became someone detached from reality, living in a fantasy world.”

— Jeff Gomez

"The games themselves are incredibly simple, but the data we can derive is incredible. The games pick up on clues from all the data points we have."

— BRUCE Wojciechowski

Enter Praxi

Gomez and Wojciechowski crossing paths wasn’t quite a meet cute, but it was a transformative experience. 
Wojciechowski and his partner Johnny Hartman, the Chief Technology Officer of Elevate Media Labs, were in the process of developing Praxi — a tool to optimize and measure the human visual system — when Gomez came to Portland, Oregon, for a speaking engagement. 

At first glance, Praxi looks like a series of pre-Atari-era video games. While the graphics aren’t lo-fi, the movement and concepts seem to be. In one iteration, Pounce, a blue dot moves around a white screen, and the user tries to click on it before it disappears, like a digital Whac-A-Mole. 

While Gomez created games that brought licensed characters to life for mega-fans, the purpose of Praxi’s games are to change lives. 

Designed to be utilized by anyone with an internet connection, Praxi is hardware agnostic and not tied to a specific technological platform. “People are spending a huge amount of money on technology, and if it changes, you’re stuck,” says Wojciechowski. 

Of the pair, Hartman is considered the tech guy. He was researching virtual reality for Microsoft when Al Gore was inventing the Internet. 

Inspired by foveated rendering — the technology behind virtual reality and augmented reality glasses that keeps what you’re focused on in high-definition — Hartman developed games that measure bioinformatic markers. These feed dashboards and data sets that can help identify potential neurological disorders, aid brain trauma recovery, and assist in sports training. 

Praxi, which is currently web-based and in a beta format, has a low barrier to entry, because volume of usage helps to create a baseline of what is considered “normal.” 

With 10 games to play, Praxi can determine 13 different elements, including visual acuity (clarity of sight), eye-hand coordination, multi-object tracking, visual motor integration, and visual memory. And having this data in a dashboard can provide significant information to allow individuals who may have slipped through the cracks in the medical system to have hope. 

In traditional vision therapy, people can get bored or trick the system. Wojciechowski says it’s common for teen athletes to cheat in conventional pre-concussion testing, like the finger test, so their baseline is reported as less than optimal, allowing them to return to the field more quickly after a traumatic brain injury. 

But the eyes don’t lie. “The games themselves are incredibly simple,” says Wojciechowski, “but the data we can derive is incredible. The games pick up on clues from all the data points we have. Things like acquisition time, reaction time, and motor response. They think that they’re playing a simple game. But it’s so much more.” 

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“Everything was shifting in space. I could see objects in the room filling the air, as if there were volume in these objects.”

— Jeff Gomez

A New Hope

It took a good deal of cajoling for Gomez to try an early version of Praxi (before it was gamified) after a chance meeting with Wojciechowski resulted in the doctor’s discovery of Gomez’s unique case of monocular vision. When he heard about Gomez’s forceps delivery it triggered a hunch. Gomez reluctantly showed up in Wojciechowski’s Portland practice at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday, just before hopping a plane back to New York and was surprised to find the room was filled with staff. 

“It seemed like they were there for me,” Gomez remembers. “They sat me down and examined my eyes. They brought in this large device that looked like a laser rifle on a tripod. They waved some lenses in front of my eyes. It seemed like they were measuring the disparity between how my brain was registering light and objects, to calculate the exact difference.” 

The “laser rifle” was actually a refractive measuring device. “I had to look through my right eye at the laser thing, and they were very stern about making me consciously push my vision and what I was looking at. I’d already tried everything many years earlier, so personally, I thought it was a waste of time,” says Gomez. 

The testing and the procedure lasted less than an hour. 

As the vision tech began to dismantle the rifle, Gomez noticed hair moving on his forearm. And the whole room looked completely different, perceptually. “When I moved my head,” says Gomez, “everything was shifting in space. I could see objects in the room filling the air, as if there were volume in these objects. I thought that someone slipped me some acid. I stood up, and everything in the room moved, and flowed, and shifted in space.” 

For the first time, Gomez could see in three dimensions. 

“The offices had an eyeglass storefront, with mobile advertisements hanging from the ceiling,” remembers Gomez. “They were turning, moving through space, and I had never seen anything like that. The furniture, the glasses glittering.” 

“And then I walked outside. The trees. It took my breath away. It was absolutely astounding. The separation of individual leaves, blowing in the wind. The foreground, middle ground, and background were separated. Layers and layers of reality all moving independently. So, this is what nature looked like. These are what people really looked like. I went to Dr. Bruce [Wojciechowski], his face was kind and beautiful. It was like I saw him for the first time. I hugged him, and broke down crying.”

The Brain Awakens

When Dr.Wojciechowski first met Gomez, he was insistent on bringing him in to be evaluated. “I told him, ‘I need to figure out what’s going on with you,’” he says. And that’s what Dr. Wojciechowski did. 

The P scale is a complete list of symptoms to check against, says Wojciechowski. In many cases, certain symptoms get discounted by people who read them. “We don’t discount them,” he says. “I keep falling. I run into the door on the left side all the time. You’re not just clumsy. Those symptoms deserve a look.” 

“The tests revealed that Gomez was extremely nearsighted in one eye and that he had a muscle misalignment. So those therapies were actually pretty simple,” says Wojciechowski. “We actually compensated for the significant imbalance that he had in one eye compared to the other, and then used some prisms to realign his eyes.” 

In Gomez’s words: “My brain was not paying attention to the optic nerve. What Dr. Bruce did, in effect, was snap his fingers to get my mind’s attention and make the brain look through my eye, and it woke up.” 

And that 10-minute realignment brought depth to Gomez’s vision. After returning home, his new clarity of vision made him realize he had a cataract in his formerly bad eye, and Dr. Wojciechowski had a very careful discussion with the cataract surgeon explaining what to do. The relationship continued remotely, which was a first for Wojciechowski. 

Gomez’s situation is a departure from most people using Praxi, says Wojciechowski. The technology that Gomez used would typically be used for establishing a baseline, which is helpful in identifying changes in aging, early symptoms of neurological diseases, or measuring the impact of a brain injury later on down the line. For Gomez, they knew he had an issue and they wanted to identify it. 

“What we did for Jeff is one of my top cases in my 40-some years of career. But it also reiterates how we slip through the cracks so many times,” Wojciechowski says, adding that this interaction was the genesis of what Praxi is today. Gomez’s case is unusual compared to the typical user of Praxi but exemplifies the wide range of potential for the technology. 

“What we did for Jeff is one of my top cases in my forty-some years of career. But it also reiterates how we slip through the cracks so many times.”

— Bruce Wojciechowski

“Our goal is to make [these professionals] aware of Praxi. We want to make it easier for everyone”

— Bruce Wojciechowski

Game Changer: 
From Beta Baseline to Quantum Performance

In its beta phase, Praxi is creating a baseline, but when released, the tool will use machine learning to help users in multiple ways. 

That baseline has a significant impact on sports and performance. “We just had a meeting with Jesuit High School, which is a nationally-known local Catholic school. We met with the assistant athletic director, who is also the baseball coach and the athletic trainer,” says Wojciechowski. “He’ll be implementing it from a performance standpoint.” 

Praxi can provide suggested activities to enhance performance, and, as a result, Jesuit High School has seen marked improvement in its individual players. But it also comes in handy when student athletes sustain a concussion, says Wojciechowski. “And unfortunately, that is going to happen.” In the case of a brain injury, the athletic trainer can use Praxi to monitor the situation. And if the student isn’t getting better, Praxi can provide a referral to a neuro optometrist to provide aid in getting the student both back in the classroom and on the field, Wojciechowski says. 

And outside of sports, for those who have an easy to define deficit, it will provide suggested activities to build strength or retrain the eye-to-brain connection. 

The folks at Praxi are developing a referral network and coordinated effort with the Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association and College of Optometrists in Vision Development to train professionals how to read the information dashboard provided by Praxi. 

Finally, there will be referrals to specialists such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, and visual therapists. “Our goal is to make [these professionals] aware of Praxi. We want to make it easier for everyone,” he says. 

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Altered Horizons

Back on that fateful day, before sending him off to the airport, Dr. Wojciechowski gave Gomez mechanical eyeglasses to mitigate what Gomez called “seasickness,” but was really visual disorientation brought on by the sudden perception of parallax vision. 

“In the airport, I became dizzy. I noticed women and was astounded by their beauty, and how the curves of their bodies filled space. When I got home, I started to think about how I would have to do my rocking rituals and other OCD act-out behaviors to let off steam and just be myself. But there I was, realizing that I was not compelled to do those things,” says Gomez. “I haven’t been since that day. The trauma that elicited the OCD is still there, but the obsessive-compulsive mechanism vanished the moment I got zapped in that office and it never came back!” 

“That was a complete shock — as much, if not more so — than experiencing the true visual world. Those intrusive thoughts were terrible and had always taken a toll on my quality of life. When I was younger and didn’t understand why I had those nightmarish thoughts, there were times where I felt suicidal. Years of therapy had barely brought them under control. But now, it was as if I escaped prison after 55 years. My other senses became enhanced. I could smell, taste, and hear better. It was miraculous.” 

Dr. Wojciechowski consulted with a number of neurologists in the wake of this unique side effect of Gomez’s vision correction. The prevailing theory is that once Gomez’s optic nerve began to feed information to his brain correctly, Gomez’s thought processes no longer needed to reroute themselves in unusual ways. The result was a more natural brain function with greater sensory clarity. By undoing a “traffic jam” in Gomez’s mind, his senses awakened and “the record in his head stopped skipping.”

It’s a simple assumption that these changes would lead to a better career for Gomez, but it was his personal lift that transformed. “Before, I was an indoor boy,” he says. “But now there’s a powerful desire to go outside. To ride my bike. To go to the beach. And with the OCD gone, even play in the dirt. I don’t have to worry about doors and windows. I have a new appreciation for reality, for the beauty of a human face. I can be comfortable and free with my own self. It’s become easier to love.” 

There is one unusual side effect. “I’m a bit less interested in tracking the millions of details in the fictional story worlds that I work with,” he smiles. “I’ve had to hire people with OCD to keep track of the 62,000 nouns in the Ultraman franchise.” 

“It was as if I escaped prison after 55 years. My other senses became enhanced. I could smell, taste, hear better. It was remarkable.”

— Jeff Gomez

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Allie Stokey, Photographer and Designer

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