20/20 Hindsight: SMU and SUTD students share their vision to combat childhood myopia

Meet Tanvi R. Thombre, Ethan Lum and Daryll Wong, co-founders of Oculario, whose signature product is a portable device that detects good eyecare habits or when conditions are not optimal for eye health. These students were the second runners up of 2020’s Create4Good Challenge, where teams from the Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design collaborated to generate smart and sustainable solutions to address social needs. ISHAN SINGH finds out about their plans to reduce childhood myopia, decrease eye fatigue among adults, and improve eye health at home and at the workplace.

Ethan, you’re an undergrad at SMU, Tanvi you’re a Master’s student at SUTD, and Daryll you’re an SUTD undergrad. How did the three of you meet, and what inspired you to start Oculario?

We met through our common friend Daryll (who knows Ethan from National Service and Tanvi through an internship). Being myopic ourselves, we recognised the importance and potential in a device to curb childhood myopia and improve eye health among adults. We therefore saw the Create4Good challenge as the perfect opportunity to get the mentoring and feedback needed to ideate, prototype and pitch a device that would address this issue.


The Oculario team. (Left to right) Tanvi, Daryll, Ethan and fellow teammate Jayden.

Tell us more about this device. How does it work and when will it hit the market?

The device can be placed on the table while studying or clipped to the laptop while working. It provides real-time statistics and analytics on the user’s eye health and recommends ways to improve eyecare habits. We aim to distribute our pretotype devices for testing soon, and are also busy working on the CV algorithm alongside it. Our goal is to have our finalised product specifications and form ready by January 2021 for manufacturing.


Excerpt from Oculario brochure, page 1.

How did you leverage one another’s strengths and expertise towards achieving your shared goal?

Our respective backgrounds were very complementary. Two of us are from SUTD and very comfortable working on the tech end of things, while Ethan was able to apply his business knowledge to the entrepreneurial aspects of the job. Today, we divide the work as follows: Daryll is in charge of the software and UI—he sees to the Computer Vision for the device’s habit tracking, the app screens and the data analytics. Tanvi takes care of the hardware and UX, seeing to the form of the device and the prototyping of the electronics. Ethan looks after the business feasibility and avenues: he understands customer segments, reaches out to partners and seeks opportunities.


Excerpt from Oculario brochure, page 2.

What is it about childhood myopia that convinced you of the need for this device?

Singapore actually has one of the highest rates of childhood myopia in the world: 83 per cent of people currently suffer from myopia, and 90 per cent of our population is projected to be suffering from myopia by 2050. Additionally, 65 per cent of our children are myopic by the time they're in Primary 6 (aged 12).

What about myopia, generally? How serious can it get?

There is presently no cure for myopia, meaning that it's a condition someone has to live with forever. There are no perfect mitigating solutions either: children who wear contact lenses have a 13 times higher chance of eye infection. That is why we are stressing the importance of cultivating good childhood eyecare habits. People mistakenly believe the effect of myopia goes as far as inconvenience and the wallet only—the costs of a lifetime of spectacles/contacts/Lasik. In truth, the bigger problem is that myopia increases the likeliness of retinal detachment, and is the fourth leading cause of blindness in Singapore. Many only realise this fact in their old age, when it’s too late.


Image via Unsplash.

How will Oculario’s intervention nip this problem in the bud?

Oculario makes it easy for busy parents to ensure that their children are taking care of their eyes right from the ages where they are most susceptible to developing myopia. It will alert children to take regular eye breaks and remind them to increase their distance and lighting levels when doing near-work. Additionally, it will incentivise outdoor activities, offering rewards in the form of discounts on outdoor family activities.

What challenges did you meet along the way?

The prototype design was definitely a challenging process as it required a much greater deal of thought and follow-through than a usual school project. We had to do a lot of market research and ensure that the product we were making would fit our audience’s needs. However, our biggest obstacle still lies ahead of us—how we shift existing mindsets and get people to take myopia more seriously. Presently, most Singaporeans still consider myopia to be the norm rather a preventable disease. Our own parents would say things like, “I don’t worry too much about myopia since most children have it.” This desensitisation is dangerous.


Image via Unsplash.

Do you think the need for your device will only increase, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged increased digitalisation in the education and work spheres?

For sure. With more people schooling and working from home, children and adults alike will need tools to take better care of their eyes. Otherwise we would be facing an eye health crisis in upcoming years. This is why Oculario’s work is so necessary—our device is an active form of reminder that’s always attached to our laptops or tables. The visible hardware is a much more effective reminder than tools like screentime-limiting apps which people need to remember to turn on each time, and that aren’t versatile enough to measure non-digital near-work.

Where do you see yourselves and Oculario five years from now?

We’d love to be able to make an even bigger impact on worldwide myopia by equipping researchers with the data we’ve collected on eyecare habits and their links to myopia.


Unless otherwise stated, images are courtesy of the interviewees.