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ZEISS Vision Science Lab: understanding vision

Carl Zeiss AG and the University of Tübingen have been jointly running the ZEISS Vision Science Lab since 2013. This is a workgroup that is both fully integrated into research as well as delivering results for the development and improvement of products. The “Industry on Campus” professorship shows how different interests can turn out successfully for both parties involved.

The exploration of alternative methods for the correction of vision is an integral part of everyday work in the ZEISS Vision Science Lab. The photo shows a volunteer participating in a Vision Science Lab experiment. © ZEISS Vision Science Lab, Tübingen

More than four billion people around the world rely on corrective visual aids or medical assistance to improve their sight. That’s four billion good reasons for bringing together industrial and academic expertise in order to look jointly for solutions that can improve vision. Many fundamental visual processes are still poorly understood, including the transmission of information about the image from the retina to the brain as well as the development of complex vision defects between the lens of the eye and the retina.

In order to gain a greater understanding of the aforementioned processes, the University and University Hospital of Tübingen and ZEISS Vision Care began a completely new type of collaboration in October 2013 and established the ZEISS Vision Science Lab. The research lab, located at Tübingen University Hospital, directly adjacent to the University Campus, represents a collaborative project at the interface between basic research and industrial applications. It was set up to investigate the process of vision and to find out how light interacts with the eye, lens and visual aids. For the first five years, the Science Vision Lab will receive funds from the University of Tübingen’s “Industry on Campus” project, which was launched as part of the German Excellence Initiative. “From the word go, the cooperation was planned as sustainable, long-term cooperation and will continue its work after the initial five-year funding period has come to an end,” said Prof. Dr. Siegfried Wahl, director of the ZEISS Vision Science Lab.

Breeding ground for innovations

The ZEISS Vision Science Lab is an “Industry on Campus” workgroup at the University of Tübingen. It was established by the University of Tübingen and ZEISS Vision Care in 2013 and is led by Prof. Dr. Siegfried Wahl (second from the left). © ZEISS Vision Science Lab, Tübingen

Prof. Wahl from the company ZEISS holds one of the Tübingen “Industry on Campus” professorships, and therefore works both at the University of Tübingen and at ZEISS. The physicist obviously feels very comfortable in this hybrid role, for which his CV makes him an ideal candidate. After receiving his doctorate in physical biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Wahl went on to work in various divisions of Carl Zeiss AG where he dealt with global innovation processes and other, similar issues. He held several management positions and was also medical device application specialist, which involved dealing with issues such as how ideas can best be turned into products. In Tübingen, he now manages upstream research processes.

“Our major aim is not the development of products, but rather to understand fundamental processes of perception. We then use this understanding to formulate concrete product requirements,” said Wahl outlining the balance between entrepreneurial spirit and scientific curiosity on which the ZEISS Vision Science Lab is founded. “Like any other research laboratory, we aim to gain new insights and publish them. ZEISS, on the other hand, is specifically focused on the generation of ideas that can be turned into products.” Wahl believes that the reason why this combination works so well in Tübingen is down to the fact that the research group is fully integrated into the University of Tübingen’s Institute for Ophthalmic Research. Many universities now have “Industry on Campuses”, but not all of them are so well integrated into the scientific world as the laboratory in Tübingen.”

At present, three ZEISS Vision Science Lab teams are working on three major areas. All three projects seek to understand the optics of the eye and also have a major focus on the downstream processes in the brain. The “Visual Optics” workgroup is investigating how visual perception can be influenced by ocular aberrations and contrast sensitivity. “We are trying to find out what information arrives in the retina and which is passed on to the brain. We are also working to resolve whether scattered light has an impact on image formation,” said Wahl. The “Visual Neuroscience” workgroup is carrying out basic research and focuses specifically on brain areas and processes that are associated with visual perception. One of the issues being explored is why distortions that sometimes occur in people wearing progressive glasses can cause discomfort. The third project is focused on “Visual Neurocomputation”, which uses algorithms to understand how vision works and what people actually perceive when they see something. Wahl names two major approaches: “We use several methods, including machine learning methods, and simulate how an image looks on the retina in people suffering from short- or long-sightedness or from other visual impairments. We want to find out what people perceive not only in the centre, but also in the periphery of their vision.”

Seeing and perceiving are two sides of the same research coin

Graphical representation of objective refraction measurement (refraction value) with the i.Profiler (ZEISS) and the analysis of the wave front. The wave front reflects lower (greenish) and higher (reddish) aberrations. © ZEISS Vision Science Lab, Tübingen

Two and a half years have passed since the establishment of the ZEISS Vision Science Lab and Wahl is very positive about what his workgroup has achieved. “A lively exchange of information has developed in both directions, and both ZEISS and university research can benefit from this.” The researchers have come up with research results from which people with poor eyesight will be able to benefit in the not-too-distant future. “People can learn to adjust to distortions caused by progressive lenses and we have found evidence of the brain area where the adaption to such viewing conditions takes place,” said Wahl, giving one example of their recent achievements. If it were possible to stimulate this region specifically, Wahl believes that people would be able to control how the eye adjusts to the distortions. The workgroup from Tübingen is also studying the basis for training methods with which people with poor eyesight would be able to control vision.

The more pieces of the vision puzzle Wahl’s group of researchers are able to identify, the greater the chance of developing methods that can improve vision. “The better we understand the processes in the brain, the greater our ability to develop personalised regimens for the treatment of ophthalmological diseases.” Moreover, research also helps to meet specific requirements. The researchers from Tübingen are also working on the improvement of surgical microscopes that are tailored to the individual requirements of surgeons, as a “perfect individual view is crucial in this field of work,” said Wahl.

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