Camera flashes often can make people’s pupils look red in photos. More rarely, flashes can make them appear white – which is usually just a trick of the light but can be a sign of disease, including an eye cancer most common in young children.
Since 2014, a free app that uses artificial intelligence to scan people’s photos for instances of so-called white eye has been available for iOS or Android devices. That app, called the White Eye Detector, has now been tested on 50,000 photos of 20 children with confirmed eye diseases and 20 with normal eyes.
The results suggest the affected children could have been diagnosed more than a year earlier on average with the help of the app, even though it spots only one out of every three photos with white eye. White eye can be a sign of several diseases including cataracts, blood vessel abnormalities and cancers called retinoblastomas. Earlier diagnosis of retinoblastomas can prevent sight loss and the need for treatments such as chemotherapy.
However, the app can’t distinguish between white eye due to eye disease and the white eye that occasionally occurs in normal eyes. That means most cases of white eye detected by the app will turn out to be nothing to worry about.ADVERTISING
“That’s the nature of the beast,” says the app’s creator, Bryan Shaw. He says parents who spot white eye in flash photos – known as leukocoria – already get it checked, as recommended. The idea is just to make this happen sooner.
Shaw’s own son Noah was diagnosed with a retinoblastoma when just 3 months old, and lost an eye as a result. When Shaw looked back at the family photos, he saw white eye first appeared in photos taken when Noah was just 12 days old.
So Shaw, a chemist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, created the app with the help of computer science colleagues Ryan Henning and Greg Hamerly and advice from the doctors who treated Noah. “A personal tragedy drove this,” says Shaw.
The app has been downloaded by tens of thousands of people, and there are anecdotal reports that it has helped several children get earlier diagnosis. However, one of the two reviews on the Apple App Store complains that it missed white eye present in “10-15 photos”, while the other says a family Christmas was ruined by the needless anxiety caused when it did spot white eye.
“Parents seeing white eye should get it checked out,” says Ashwin Reddy, a retinoblastoma consultant at the Royal London Hospital in the UK. But he worries that such apps could lead to a lot of people coming for check-ups.
What is really needed is an app that can tell when white eye is due to an eye disease, says Reddy.
Shaw thinks this isn’t possible based on appearance alone. But white eye does crop up 10 times more frequently in those with eye disease, he says. So the team may upgrade the app with face recognition so it can identify individuals with abnormally high rates of white eye. The downside is that this might delay detection.
Ultimately, Shaw hopes that photo hosting services, such as Apple’s iCloud, will offer white eye detection as a service to their customers.