Software developed by two Oklahoma optometrists is being used in space to test the eyesight of astronauts, following reports of vision loss by one-fifth of those exposed to long-term microgravity.
Elk City optometrist Dan Bintz — who developed Acuity Pro software with recently retired Bartlesville optometrist Jerry Carter — said NASA early last month launched a two-year study using their vision-science software with Expedition 35 astronauts at the International Space Station.
Acuity Pro is a digital version of the eye chart introduced in the late 1800s, then electronically projected for years before the advent of computers, Bintz said. The software and companion remote control allow users to change the big “E” traditionally at the top of the chart to a different letter, randomize the letters in all rows, and adjust letter sizes to accommodate exam rooms shorter than the standard 20-foot test distance.
The Windows-based software was loaded on space station laptops, giving Houston-based NASA officials the ability to monitor astronauts' visual alterations in real time, Bintz said. They now can explore when impairments begin, how they progress and ways to reverse them, he said.
According to NASA, about 20 percent of astronauts who have flown to the station, where most average 100-day stays, report some type of vision problems, primarily with farsightedness, Bintz said. About half of those suffer visual impairments that seem to be permanent, he said. It's believed prolonged exposure to microgravity causes intracranial pressure and swelling of the optic nerve, he said.
Bintz declined to share the dollar amount of the NASA contract or the annual sales of his company, which is based in his optometry offices in Elk City and employs two workers.
Carter said NASA approached Acuity Pro at an industry trade show two years ago in California. “Because of an already crowded space station, they liked that our software could be loaded on any existing equipment,” he said.
At Bintz's suggestion in the late 1990s, Carter worked for more than two years to program and tweak Acuity Pro's computer software. Bintz and Carter attended Northeastern State University's optometry school together, graduating in 1984.
Carter said he taught himself computer programming in his first career, as a chemistry, physics and biology teacher for Hydro and Cherokee schools. While at optometry school at NSU, he did computer work for a professor and, after graduation, continued to dabble in and expand his programming skills.
“I've never had computer classes,” Carter said. “It's hard to believe that a program I wrote from home is really being used in the International Space Station”
NASA particularly was interested in contrast sensitivity, Carter said, or using faint gray letters, versus black letters on a white page, so astronauts might notice changes sooner and macular degeneration or other visual impairments would be detected earlier.
Acuity Pro software also features jpeg images and videos that optometrists can use to educate their patients about eye diseases, Bintz said.
With the federal government awarding incentives to optometrists to establish and share electronic health records, many doctors have computers in their exam rooms, Bintz said.
“So we were forward-thinking and just didn't realize it,” he said.
Founded in 2000, Acuity Pro (acuitypro.com) has some 8,000 users worldwide, retired Bartlesville optometrist Jerry Carter said. Users also are in Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Brazil, Spain, Mexico and Canada. The licensed software costs $1,600, he said.