Clint Thodos could only see the “nia” of the word “California” on the board in front of him. He put the Google Glass on and a moment later, he could read the word in its entirety.
“It was like magic,” Thodos said. “I could see again.”
Thodos, a third-year American literature and culture student, began working as a research assistant for a study at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute in fall 2015. The study tests wearable technology, such as Google Glass, to help expand the field of sight for subjects with visual loss.
Thodos helps promote and test the same product from which he benefits. He was diagnosed with left hemianopia, a condition resulting in the loss of the left half of the visual field, when he was 16 years old.
This diagnosis was not Thodos’ first shock of the year. A couple months prior to the diagnosis, he had a seizure while on a family vacation. The doctors discovered he was born with an arteriovenous malformation that had remained undetected until it had grown enough to trigger the seizure.
His surgery to remove the life-threatening AVM was successful, but strokes he experienced during the procedure made him lose mobility on the left side of his body and the left half of his visual field. He relearned how to walk and write, but never regained the left side of his vision.
“You don’t realize what you’ve lost,” said Georgette Dakis, Thodos’ aunt. “While your friends are learning how to drive cars, you’re relearning how to walk.”
Dakis added that Thodos took the harrowing events that took place in such a short amount of time all in stride.
“He wasn’t the kid that ever said, ‘Why me?’” Dakis said. “He said, ‘This is what I gotta do,’ and he did it.”
Thodos said he eventually adjusted to living with only half of his visual field, although he could not drive and sometimes bumped into people and walls as he walked. He added he was determined to lead a normal life and enrolled in Santa Monica College, with the goal of transferring to his dream school – UCLA.
At SMC, Thodos came across a Facebook profile cover photo that advertised a study that was recruiting subjects with visual impairments due to brain surgery or stroke.
“I emailed (the researcher) and within a week later, I was here testing the Glass,” Thodos said.
He said he was initially hesitant to get his hopes up for the study, because of previous letdowns with technology that was supposed to help his vision.
“When I first put them on, they didn’t work,” Thodos said. “But then (the researchers) said ‘They’re not on.’”
Within minutes, he had regained his entire field of vision with the glasses. A year later in fall 2016, he enrolled at UCLA.
Navid Amini, a research assistant professor at the Stein Eye Institute, said Thodos was exactly the kind of subject, and eventually research assistant, the study needed.
“He was A: young, B: a fresh student, C: tech-savvy,” Amini said. “He basically started contributing day one.”
Amini added that Thodos’ personal experience with visual impairment reassures new subjects to the study. He said Thodos helps familiarize them to the glasses by showing them how to work the software.
“You can imagine how significant (Thodos’) role is,” Amini said. “His presence himself comforts the subjects. He helps them adapt to the product.”
Thodos also attends conferences and contests with the research team to present the product that he now knows well. His work promoting the glasses and writing about his experiences garnered the attention of X, a company founded by Google which invited him to visit their headquarters and test their new self-driving cars.
Thodos also reaches out to potential subjects with similar visual conditions all over the world to come test the glasses. He said it is exciting to watch new subjects go through what he experienced: initially not being able to read a whole word, then reading it with the glasses.
Amini said Thodos motivates the research team to continue their work testing the product. Thodos’ personal success story with the glasses encourages Amini to believe that technology can change people’s lives.
“There are more people like (Thodos) that we know,” Amini said. “We need to find those people and make sure they can live their lives in the best possible way.”
The study is now completing its first stage, and Thodos will soon be able to test the glasses while at home and on campus. He said he is working on a screenplay based on his experiences and hopes to complete it before he graduates from UCLA.
“I would never think that I could see again,” Thodos said. “Let alone from a place that was my dream school. It’s all been like a movie.”