Benjamin Yonattan is a 13-year-old boy with a passion for dance. He also has a chronic vision condition that savaged his eyesight so that he was effectively "looking through a straw" to interact with the world. But wearing a Google Glass headset restored his vision to the point that he was able to get back on the dance floor.
Yonattan told us he has been dancing since he was 5 years old. He became more seriously invested in the art when he was 9, taking classes more frequently and asking for more corrections from his instructors. "We eventually took him to a dance convention," said Benjamin's mother, Erin Brown Conroy. "These are events usually hosted in a large hotel. There are famous dancing instructors there, you dance all weekend, and they're often attached to a competition."
Benjamin said that the trouble with his vision began at one such dance convention. "I would get there, start dancing. There are hundreds of people there, and whenever I would dance or do something big, a leap, I’d bump into someone or feel squished into a small area. I was curious why I felt like that."
Benjamin's mother happens to have a master's degree in blind rehabilitation, and she sensed that something was medically wrong with her son. "What I know now is that his field of view collapsed. Watching from the sides, it looked like he was simply standing around. It just didn’t feel right," she said. After visiting the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor, Benjamin was diagnosed with retinal dystrophy, and the prognosis was that his condition wouldn't improve.
But things changed after an incidental encounter with technology. "I just wanted to take a picture on my mom’s phone one day," Benjamin said, "but as soon as I put it up to my eye, I saw a ton more. I said, 'Hi, Mom.' She said, 'What!'" It was a pleasant surprise for a mother who thought her son's vision was on its way out. "It was a moment for both of us," she said. "The iPhone shows you the whole picture. It takes everything and shrinks it down. As I watched him use the iPhone's camera, my little wheels started turning."
The real breakthrough came later when Benjamin tried on Google Glass, the head-mounted glasses that can take pictures and shoot video. Since the device is wearable, it meant that Benjamin could have his hands free as a large portion of his vision was restored. "My brother was in [the] Glass Explorer program and was one of the earliest people to get one," said Conroy. "I saw his Google Glass. I said, 'Get me on the list, this is gonna be the perfect answer.'" The family ended up crowdfunding the money to purchase Benjamin's Glass headset through a GoFundMe campaign, raising a touch more than the $1,600 necessary to buy the device.
When Benjamin put on the device he exclaimed that he could see seven people in the room. Without it, he could see only one eye of one person. Google Glass' display happens to land within his four-degree field of vision, effectively expanding what he's able to see through its tiny screen. Here's a medical diagram that shows how severely limited his vision is without the device, and how drastically improved it is when he wears it.
The improvements facilitated by Google Glass have brought most of his vision back when he wears the device. He's dancing again, thanks to Google Glass. Tech wonks will note that the device has recently come under fire for mostly seeming like a novelty, but it appears set to change this young man's life. Benjamin's dance coach, Valerie Potsos at the University of Michigan, says that even with his vision loss, he has a chance to go to school in dance if he keeps at it. Benjamin thinks he could be the first blind person to get a degree in dance.
But before Benjamin's vision ultimately fails, he says he would like to establish relationships with some key people in the dance community, such as Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy, judges for the television show "So You Think You Can Dance," as well as the show's choreographers: Travis Wall, Mandy Moore and Sonya Tayeh.