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By Cody Kitaura on May 11, 2017

Editor’s note: This student invention story is presented here as it was first published in Dateline UC Davis in 2015. The subject, biomedical engineering major Rose Hong Truong, is now working as a product manager for Flex, an international company featuring intelligent product design, manufacturing and logistics. "Our group engages with customers at the concept stage where they start with the most ambiguous requirements," she says. "From here, we focus mainly on technology research, ideation, and prototyping on the path to production." 

The elderly man had walked miles through the rain forest to get a pair of eyeglasses, only to go away empty-handed. 

Rose Hong Truong, who graduated in 2015, was there, in Ecuador, as a UC Davis freshman spending a quarter abroad. A group of medical students from other universities had set up a makeshift clinic, but it was closing — and all the optometry equipment had been packed away. There were plenty of glasses, but no way to test the man’s vision to determine his prescription. 

“Meeting the old man when I was 18, it really affected me and I never forgot it,” she said. “But I never thought to solve it until I was a junior and I was 21, and then suddenly it just hit me: This is the right thing to do.”

Becomes senior design project in biomedical engineering 

She turned her quest into her senior design project in biomedical engineering, and, working with three of her classmates, created an eye-examination tool that is not only convenient but relatively inexpensive to build and thus ideal for developing countries. 

It’s called the VisionFinder, a hand-held device manufactured on campus for less than $100, inspired by the classic View-Master toy that “plays” a reel of three-dimensional images, a different one appearing every time you press a lever.

The VisionFinder functions like a phoropter, the optometrist’s tool that shows a patient how the world would look through different lenses. 

Eye-exam tool is useful for developing nations

“We took that large device and we shrank it down into this tiny travel size,” Truong said.

It was unique enough to spur the team to file for a provisional patent, and Truong said she hopes she’ll find a nonprofit organization or foundation to adopt the technology.

“We’re doing our best to give it away,” said Truong, who is from San Jose and graduated last spring. “We don’t want it to sit on a shelf.”

First priority is helping people in developing countries

She said she passed on a potential deal with a startup that had capital but no infrastructure to deliver eyeglasses to developing countries. Her first priority is helping people, not making money — an ideal she said her teammates share, as do many others in the biomedical engineering major.

Anthony Passerini, an associate professor who oversees the biomedical engineering senior design program, said most senior design projects are developed with nonprofit organizations in mind, say, the UC Davis Medical Center or the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine — even if each project helps only one patient.

There’s often no way to turn those small-scale solutions into something that could be widely marketed, Passerini said.

“Making money is not the main objective of senior design,” Passerini said. “In the real world that’s often one of the main drivers.”

Testing and feedback for project that solved a need

Woman tests view finder being used by another woman
Rose Hong Truong, right, a biomedical engineering major, works with Jackie Lim, a biochemical engineering major, on putting together the VisionFinder. Truong and her student team made VisionFinder as an easy, low-cost way to help correct vision in developing countries. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Truong’s group was unique in that its project solved a need identified by the students, and it started six months early to have enough time to test and get feedback.

Most teams sprint through the development and testing of their prototypes, and then call it quits when they go their separate ways after graduation, Passerini said.

Sold VisionFinders to a foundation and clinic

Truong said her team has sold three VisionFinders to a foundation and a clinic, and doubts the team will make any more after those have been completed.

After all, the Engineering Fabrication Lab the team has been using is meant for students, and Truong joked that by now she could probably make the VisionFinder in her sleep.

She said she is eager to move on to new projects. Her next idea, a portable projector powered by a smartphone, was “a bit too easy.”

She said she’s going to try her hand at building a pendant that would sync with a mobile app and indicate ovulation cycles for a friend who is trying to have another baby.

Cody Kitaura is a content provider and strategist in Strategic Communications. He majored in journalism, which taught him to quickly distill complicated information so it can be easily understood — a skill that can be applied nearly anywhere.

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