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In VR, 'The Blind Gamer' Sees Without Glasses For The First Time

Imagine a future where the visually impaired could see more clearly thanks to technology. Now what if I told you that we might not be far from that reality? VR technology might be a glimpse at such a future.

Meet “The Blind Gamer”

Steve Saylor is a 33-year-old graphic designer, video editor, and web designer from Toronto. Like many people, Steve likes to share Lets Play videos and livestreams on YouTube. Unlike most people, Saylor can’t see.

Saylor was born with an eye condition called Nystagmus, which affects his vision to the point where he might as well be blind. The American Academy of Ophthalmology defines Nystagmus as “an involuntary, rapid and repetitive movement of the eyes.” According to the academy, people born with Nystagmus “will probably develop less clear vision.”

In Saylor’s case, to say his vision is poor would be an understatement. Normal vision is 20/20; Saylor’s vision is 20/200 with his glasses on. He's not sure what his vision is rated at without corrective lenses. "Let's just say I can't find a scale online that goes that high," he told Tom's Hardware with a chuckle. In one of his videos, Saylor explained that from 5 feet away, he can’t see the camera that he uses for filming. To him, it just looks like a blob.

Saylor doesn’t let his poor vision get in the way of doing what he loves. He's an avid gamer, and he tries to put out a livestream every Thursday evening. As you can imagine, he has trouble playing the games because of his vision, so he made a comedy bit out of his situation and called himself “The Blind Gamer.”

For years, Saylor was content getting a couple of hundred views on his videos, but things changed in a big way after he tried VR for the first time. Normally, YouTubers require more than 10,000 subscribers to get access to the YouTube's creator facility, but Saylor was offered a one-time demo at the YouTube Space in Toronto, where he lives. YouTube has an HTC Vive setup there, and Saylor stopped by to try it in December.

In early February, Saylor finally got around to posting a video of his experience. For the first week the video was online, it accrued a handful of views, but on February 19, someone shared the link on Reddit, and Saylor enjoyed a small burst of viral fame. Within 24 hours, the Vive video became his most-viewed clip of all time, reaching nearly 28,000 views by the morning of the February 21.  

It’s easy to understand why the views of The Blind Gamer’s VR video kept piling on. Saylor gives a quick intro before jumping into VR. "I've never been able to play a video game without my glasses on. Ever," Saylor said to the camera. "So, I’m really, really, excited to give this a shot."

You can tell from his face that he’s elated by the notion of seeing without glasses, and his excitement didn’t let up throughout the experience. Saylor tried the Trials on Tatooine experience, and he seemed to be having the time of his life.

After the Star Wars demo had concluded and he had the Vive headset off, he turned to the camera and explained what the experience meant to him:

I’ve never known real vision. The vision I have is the vision I was born with. I have never felt like I was in a game until today. […] Playing this experience in VR is the closest I’ve ever felt like I’m included too--like I’m a gamer, too.”

Saylor told us that he’s 100% sold on VR. His one-off experience convinced him that there is incredible potential for the future of VR, although he still believes the technology isn’t quite there yet. Saylor said that without his glasses on, the HMD allowed him to see as clearly as he can when he's holding a book right up to his face with his glasses on. Off camera, Saylor tried the Vive with glasses, and he couldn't see further into the distance, but he was able to pick up more detail. The improvement wasn’t pronounced enough to justify wearing a VR HMD all day. Still, it was good enough for him to see the potential for the future.

The key factor that helps Saylor see better with the headset on than he does in the real world comes down to depth. As noted, Saylor is severely nearsighted, so he can see things that are close more clearly than objects further away. But in a VR HMD, nothing in front of you is actually distant. Everything on the screen is mere inches from your retina. I can’t help but wonder if a device like the Vrvana Totem Mixed Reality headset would dramatically improve Saylor’s day to day life. The Totem headset isn’t exactly portable, but it's only a matter of time before a device the size of a pair of glasses with mixed reality capabilities hits the market. ODG announced a pair of Snapdragon 835 powered smartglasses at CES that should hit the market later this year, and others are working on optics that reduce HMD size and weight, which is a big step in the right direction.

Eventually, someone will create a device that closely resembles the visor the Geordi La Forge wears in Star Trek. Saylor said he would relish the opportunity to rock such a visor (Geordie is his favorite Star Trek character for obvious reasons). In the meantime, Saylor is eager to get his hands on a VR headset of his own. He doesn’t have a gaming PC and doesn’t have the money to invest in a rig and Vive, but he plans to save up for a PSVR so he doesn’t have to pull his TV up to the couch to play his games anymore.

Update, 2/24/17, 9:00pm PT: Correction made about Saylor's live streaming day. We also incorrectly stated that YouTuber's get access to YouTube Space with 1,000 subscribers. You actually need 10,000 subscribers to gain access to YouTube's resources.

Kevin Carbotte is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He writes news and reviews of graphics cards and virtual reality hardware.