Scientists announced plans this week to develop eyeglasses with tiny color TV screens instead of lenses that may help an estimated 2.5 million people whose vision can't be improved by conventional treatment.

The device will not restore sight to the blind, or improve nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism, but will enhance what vision is left in people who suffer from degenerative eye disease, researchers at Johns Hopkins' Wilmer Eye Institute said this week.Wilmer and NASA's National Space Technology Laboratories will spend $5 million in the next five years to develop and manufacture the system, said Robert Massof, a Hopkins ophthalmology professor working on the project.

Ray Gilbert, manager of NASA's technology applications engineering section, said the system is a spinoff of technology developed to create space stations. "That technology is used and applied here," he said.

The device would resemble wrap-around sunglasses with small lenses at the upper outer corners, connected by optical fibers to a battery-powered computer at the waist, Massof said.

The lenses would capture the field of vision, and images would be conveyed to miniature solid-state television cameras in the waist pack, he said. The images are processed by the computer and displayed on the television screens where the lenses would be.

The result would be a clearer and more defined vision than can be produced by conventional eye treatment.

"The same world will be on TV screens," Massof said. "For a long time the only thing that's been done for people with low vision is provide them with a magnifier. With the technology (available), we (believed) we could do more than simply enlarge it."

NASA scientists will adapt the technology for the glasses, while researchers at Wilmer will determine what the system has to do to alter a patient's vision, Massof said.

"The breakthrough is the technology that made this all possible," he said. "We are not creating new components for this."

About 11 million Americans have vision defects that cannot be corrected. The glasses could benefit about 2.5 million people who suffer from severe, disabling impairment, or low vision, said Dr. Arnall Patz, director of the eye institute.

The system will be adapted from technology used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to guide vehicles, Massof said. NASA uses a black and white version of the system, he said.

"They mount a TV camera on a robot; the robot goes off to do the task, and the operator stays in place and experiences what the robot sees. If a robot can wear TV cameras, a person can wear TV cameras," Massof said.

"They may qualify as legally blind, but are still potentially productive people. They can probably get around but are unable to read ... recognize faces, or things may be very reduced in contrast, so they look somewhat blank.

"For the patient who has reduction in sensitivity to contrasts where blacks and whites look gray we can sharpen up the contrast and make blacks much blacker, whites much whiter," he said.

He could not say what it would cost, but said the eyeglasses could be assembled for less than $1,000. "It will be of no value unless it is made affordable for the person who is retired and on a fixed income," he said.

"The part of the device that is uncertain in price is the computer processing. That technology is still rapidly changing. It would be hard to guess the total cost five years from now," Massof said.

Researchers hope it would qualify for insurance coverage as a rehabilitative device, he said.