A team of Australian industrial designers and scientists have unveiled their prototype for the world’s first bionic eye.
It is hoped the device, which involves a microchip implanted in the skull and a digital camera attached to a pair of glasses, will allow recipients to see the outlines of their surroundings.
If successful, the bionic eye has the potential to help over 85 per cent of those people classified as legally blind. With trials beginning next year, Monash University’s Professor Mark Armstrong says the bionic eye should give recipients a degree of extra mobility.
"There’s a camera at the front and the camera is actually very similar to an iPhone camera, so it takes live action for colour," he told PM. "And then that imagery is then distilled via a very sophisticated processor down to, let’s say, a distilled signal.
"That signal is then transmitted wirelessly from what’s called a coil, which is mounted at the back of the head and inside the brain there is an implant which consists of a series of little ceramic tiles and in each tile are microscopic electrodes which actually are embedded in the visual cortex of the brain."
Professor Armstrong says is it is hoped the technology will help those who completely blind, enabling them to navigate their way around.
"What we believe the recipient will see is a sort of a low resolution dot image, but enough… [to] see, for example, the edge of a table or the silhouette of a loved one or a step into the gutter or something like that," he said.
"So the wonderful thing, if our interpretation of this is correct - because we don’t know until the first human trial - [is] it’ll of course enable people that are blind to be reconnected with their world in a way.
"There’s a number of different settings … so you could set it to floor mapping for example and it creates a silhouette around objects on the floor so that you can see where you’re going."
A challenge the designers have had to overcome is ensuring the product was lightweight, adjustable and enabled users to feel good about themselves.
"We want to make it comfortable and light weight and adjustable so that different sized heads and shapes will still manage it well and have those sort of nice aspects," Professor Armstrong said.
"We don’t want a Heath Robinson wire springs affair on somebody’s head.
"It needs to look sophisticated and appropriate, probably less like a prosthetic and more like a cool Bluetooth device."
The first implant is scheduled to go ahead next year which is expected to be followed by clinical trials, research and user feedback to the team.
The development of a bionic eye was one of the key aspirations out of the 2020 summit that was held in 2008.
Professor Armstrong says it is “amazing” that a prototype for the technology has already been achieved.
"To be honest when I heard about that 2020 conference and all of the people there, I thought it was a little bit of a hot air fest if you know what I mean," he said.
"But I’ve been proven completely wrong.
"Some of the initiatives from that, this is a major one for sure, have been brought to fruition and it’s wonderful for Australia and equally wonderful for Monash University."