Montclair scientist’s unique company treats vision problems

Among the marvels of human anatomy we take for granted because it usually functions superbly without effort is vision. Certainly, many people require glasses, Lasik surgery or other corrective procedures, but in general, we expect our eyes to work in well-coordinated fashion, and they generally do — except for when they don’t, even after medical interventions increase visual acuity.

Dr. Maureen Powers, of Oakland’s Montclair district, is the founder and CEO of Eyes in Sync, which creates virtual-reality games to alleviate binocular vision disorders in children that can cause reading problems. (photo courtesy of Dr. Maureen Powers) 

If binocular vision disorders, the inability for two eyes to face the same direction and see words or images and their surroundings, goes undetected, especially during childhood and early schooling, the impact can be devastating. Vision testing in schools and doctor’s offices commonly does not address binocular vision, but each eye’s ability to look at the same word or image at the same time is vital for reading and visual comprehension.

“Kids who don’t read at grade level by grade three are at very high risk of being low-income for life and/or going to jail,” says Montclair resident Dr. Maureen Powers, who cites “Optometry’s Role in Juvenile Delinquency Remediation,” a book published by the Optometric Extension Program Foundation to support her claim. “Our data show that about 20% of kids have poor eye coordination. If we can help only 10% of them, that would be a huge impact.”

Powers is an internationally recognized research scientist and currently holds positions as founder/senior scientist and director of research of the Gemstone Foundation (bayareane.ws/2VfGfuH) and founder and chief executive officer of Eyes in Sync LLC (eyesinsync.com/team), a San Pablo company that creates virtual-reality games to improve binocular vision. Powers’ areas of expertise include visual systems and brain plasticity. For two decades before moving to the Bay Area, she was a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she founded and directed the Vanderbilt Vision Research Center.

In May 2020, Eyes in Sync received a rare, prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation to support the company’s newest software innovation, an adventure game titled “The Crystal Key.” The binocular development tool uses virtual reality and is played using an app on an Oculus Quest 2 device. Powers grew up in Alameda and says her mother was a frustrated scientist who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1941.

Kathy Chao, the daughter of Oakland’s Montclair resident Dr. Maureen Powers, demonstrates above how subjects play Powers’ company Eyes In Sync’s new game “The Crytal Key” on an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Eyes in Sync creates virtual-reality games to alleviate binocular vision disorders in children that can cause reading problems. (photo courtesy of Dr. Maureen Powers) 

“She instilled in me a love of nature and geology. We spent time in Yosemite and traveling to state parks,” says Powers.

Initially interested in sociology and with a heart for public service, she intended to concentrate on animal behavior during her graduate years.

“I turned to psychology in grad school at the University of Michigan because I couldn’t get into the zoology major. My plan was to take background courses for zoology, but I ended up in neuroscience. It was a brand-new field then. Combining outside information and how it gets into the body and brain was fascinating to me.”

Powers has never looked back since. Instead, her work centers on reading, which she believes is “the most important skill you learn in school.” She says adults and kids spend increasing amounts of time reading: street signs and highway messaging, on phones and screens for news or social interaction or working and learning online.

“Eyes in Sync’s purpose and this new prototype we’ve developed are not just about correcting eyes and vision; they’re about making sure the entire visual system is working well. To make your car run well at night, you need headlights. If the mechanism behind those lights isn’t running, you’ll have a hard time getting where you want to go.”