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A new way to see: Technology allows BHS siblings to better see the world

BEMIDJI -- Aliena Jensen seemed to wobble a bit before rehearsal for prep orchestra, where she plays violin with a gaggle of other ninth-graders. She and paraprofessional Cindy Bronczyk huddled outside the practice room for a few minutes before A...

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Aliena Jensen uses the headset IrisVision to improve her eyesight while playing the violin for prep orchestra in early January at Bemidji High School. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Aliena Jensen seemed to wobble a bit before rehearsal for prep orchestra, where she plays violin with a gaggle of other ninth-graders.

She and paraprofessional Cindy Bronczyk huddled outside the practice room for a few minutes before Aliena went inside, found her usual spot, and slid a special headset over her eyes as other students chatted or tuned their instruments.

Orchestra Director Seth Freundschuh paused briefly to explain Aliena’s new look to the class (and why a Pioneer reporter and photographer had shown up).

“Aliena has some new glasses,” Freundschuh said. Aliena popped out of her chair as the class turned. “They’re gonna help her do a whole bunch. Can you see me? How do I look today? Better?”

“Well, I can tell you’re Mr. Freundschuh,” Aliena said with a laugh.

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Before Jensen debuted the headset earlier this month, the Bemidji High Schooler needed a special music stand and large, laminated pages of sheet music. She and sister Anna, another bubbly ninth-grader at BHS, have an eye condition called “retinopathy of prematurity,” which means they’re nearly legally blind even when wearing glasses.

The sisters’ new headsets, though, could change that. Called “IrisVision,” they function like refined versions of a smartphone virtual reality rig: users clip a phone-style device into the plastic and cloth headset, then use a handful of touch controls near their right temple to magnify and enhance the live video captured on the device’s front-mounted camera.

Anna and Aliena, then, can zoom in on a faraway spot on a whiteboard during a math lesson, magnify pages in a textbook, or focus on a teacher’s face from any seat in the class.

“This will help Anna see like you see,” Nancy Stittsworth, a paraprofessional at the high school, told the other students in Anna’s special education class.

That means the sisters can watch races at the Bemidji Speedway without a monocular. They’ll actually be able to see country star Lee Brice when they head to his concert next month. And they can watch Netflix from a couch across the room, rather than parking themselves a foot or so in front of the TV.

Each headset costs $2,500, said Lori Winger, the sisters’ mom. State Services for the Blind paid for them, but other community-minded organizations around town have raised money for other special pieces of technology, like an “Onyx” video magnifier that can read back text.

Anna and Aliena did a dry run with the headsets after school one day in early January, after most students had gone home for the day. The evening before the sisters were set to wear them in class for the first time, both said they weren’t particularly worried about getting picked on.

Anna said she was kind of nervous that her classmates might be jealous. Winger said her daughters can’t see people looking at them, anyway.

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“It’s just another school day,” Aliena said. “I do me!”

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Bemidji High School teacher Jennifer Bucci helps Anna Jensen with her studies in early January at Bemidji High School. Jensen uses a headset to improve her vision while at school. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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