The device features a minute video camera attached to a pair of dark glasses. The camera records images, which will then be sent wirelessly to an implant which will stimulate electrodes on the retina. Once stimulated, the retina will then be able to discern points of light, which the brain will then be able to reconstruct into images, thus effectively creating simulated vision for those suffering from macular degeneration or other genetic ailments.
The bionic eye prototype was created by researchers from the University of Melbourne, and is being tested by individuals from the school, as well as the Bionic Ear Institute, the Center for Eye Research Australia, the University of New South Wales and National Information and Communications Technology Australia. The country’s government contributed $42 million to help fund the project.
Experts are calling this the biggest advance for low-vision individuals since the invention of the Braille alphabet some two centuries ago. It is currently undergoing tests, and the first actual human implant of the device is tentatively scheduled to occur in 2013.
Bionic Eyeby Dr Paul Willis If you have ever taken a guided tour through a cave, there comes the inevitable moment when, deep within the earth, the guide will turn off the lights just to show you how dark it is. And it is completely dark. Absolute pitch black. For a moment you have lost your sight and for many it is a dizzying experience. You become keenly aware that your other senses are working just fine: you can smell the perfume of that lady in the tour group, you can hear the uneasy shuffling of your fellow tourists, you can feel the tightening grip of a loved-one on your arm as they experience the unease of total dark. But you cannot see a thing. For a brief moment you have an insight into what it must be like to be blind.
Restoring sight to the blind has long been one of the greatest desires of humanity. Several religious texts from around the world list the miraculous curing of blindness as testament to the truth of their faith. I think this says more about the universal recognition among a variety of cultures that blindness is both utterly incurable and that a cure is highly desired. It is a statement of the importance we place in sight.
Well good-old Aussie know-how has been brought to bear on the antediluvian problem and a cure for many types of blindness is now on the lab bench awaiting commercial release in just a few years time. The Bionic Eye is basically an ocular version of the technology developed for the cochlear implant. Watch the program for more details as to how it works and what it’s like for the blind to ‘see’ again.
But I must tell you what I experienced test-driving this amazing technology. I didn’t get the full implant but I was provided with a head-mounted display of the information processed from a camera mounted on my head. The problem is the implant currently consists of only 98 electrodes (a 1000 electrode model is in development) so the camera image needs to be manipulated into a simple 98 ‘pixel’ image that relays the information you need to navigate through the environment. Extraneous information has to be filtered out and useful information, such as how close the object is, needs to be encoded into the simplest possible format. The result is a black and white image that looks very different from what you would see with the naked eye. The question is can people be trained to interpret these images effectively enough to use them to walk around without bumping into things?
So on went the headgear and then a coverall hood so I could see nothing other than the images from the head-mounted display. Then I was let loose in a simple maze. You can see what happened in the accompanying video clip.
It was a thrilling experience. I actually had the feeling, not of learning to see in a new way, but more akin to developing a new sense like echolocation or psychic insight. And I was surprised how quickly I was able to take to this new sense and use it to get around an unfamiliar environment. It was inspiring to think that humanity has now arrived at a point where technology will be able to restore the sight to many blind people. It is nothing short of miraculous.