Bionic Vision Unveils Advanced Prototype Electronic Eyeball
March 31, 2010
Advances in chemistry and electronics promise to conquer many of the most serious diseases afflicting mankind. One example prime example is vision loss. Today a number of groups are racing to develop a high-definition electronic eyeball, or to become the first to regrow a biological eye.
One team looking to create an electronics-driven cure to blindness is Bionic Vision Australia (BVA) and its academic partner, the University of New South Wales. The pair unveiled their "first advanced prototype", the culmination of efforts financed by a $42M USD research grant from the Australian government.
The advanced prototype consists of a glasses-mounted video camera, a pocket-mounted processor, and a wireless electrode chip mounted inside the eyeball. They pocket processor is referred to as "wireless" in that it communicates wirelessly with the electrode chip, though it is wired to the video camera.
The electrode chip contains 98 electrodes which stimulate cells on the optical nerve. Unfortunately, this means that the chip can only currently help the vision impaired with intact optical nerves. The technology could eventually complement optical nerve regeneration techniques (such as stem cell regrowth) to help additional victims of vision loss.
Anthony Burkitt, BVA's research director and an engineering professor at the University of Melbourne, states in a press release, "We anticipate that this retinal implant will provide users with increased mobility and independence, and that future versions of the implant will eventually allow recipients to recognize faces and read large print."
The 98 electrode allows for crude shape recognition. Combined with an advanced image recognition and logical planning processor (the human brain), it should allow a person with vision impairments to navigate many settings without a cane or seeing eye dog.
A second generation prototype is in the works, which would contain close to 1,000 electrodes in a 36 by 36 electrode array. The second gen device would allow for face recognition and much better object detail. It will give patients roughly 20/80 vision.
Leighton Boyd, president of Retina Australia, knows about vision loss first hand. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 5, a degenerative vision disorder that leads to blindness. He hopes to be among the first recipients of prototype implants, which should be ready in 2011.
BVA says their second generation implant will be available in 2013. Clinical trials are scheduled to be performed at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne.
Eventually, ocular implants may become as routine as the yearly phone upgrade to the next gen smartphone of your choice. Today the implants can only deliver a crude recreation of the form of vision granted by biology, but they eventually may be able to deliver better than 20/20 vision by ditching the imperfections of the human eyeball and delivering feeds from high resolution optics directly into the visual nerve.
Electronic eyeballs could also offer big leaps in the world of robotics and artificial intelligence.