• Bionic eyes are already in development and could alleviate sight issues for hundreds of millions suffering from visual impairments or blindness.
  • The mechanical eyes could also provide enhanced sight so cybernetic humans could see more of the electromagnetic spectrum.

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE

With an estimated 285 million people worldwide with visual impairment, many treatments and technological innovations have long been in development. The panacea of restoring sight to the blind is the stuff of sci-fi: the bionic eye.

A bionic eye, or retinal prosthesis system, works by bridging the gap between light entering the eye and the optic nerve — which is what communicates images to the brain so we can discern what we see.

So far, the only US FDA-approved device is the Argus II from a company called Second Sight. It works by using a camera integrated to a pair of eyeglasses and an implant on the surface of the eye that taps into the optical nerve. Currently, Argus II users are capable of perceiving only shadows and outlines of figures.

Second Sight Medical Products' Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System
Second Sight Medical Products’ Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System

Another up-and-coming development is Melbourne’s diamond-electrode bionic eyes that may be able to perceive facial expressions and read large prints. Scientists behind the tech are are arranging for clinical testing.

These bionic eye technologies don’t restore vision to a perfect level and are far from ideal, but there’s continued development that may soon get us there.

A CYBORG FUTURE

When we finally invent tech that restores perfect sight, what then? Beyond healing blindness, bionic eyes could potentially make us superhuman.

Light comes in different wavelengths and humans can only see the visible spectrum made of colored light. If a bionic eye could let us see the entire electromagnetic spectrum — from radio waves to gamma waves — we’d be able to “see” heat, identify types of gases by sight, and even look through walls.

We may also be able to zoom in and out of our field of vision (tech that already exists), record what we see, and automatically sync it to the net with our Wi-Fi-ready eyes. It’s all speculation, but nobody can deny that innovative technology is turning science fiction into reality.

VISIONS OF THE FUTURE

Bionic open up an array of applications in several fields: studying microbes could be done without equipment, soldiers can detect mines in a field, manual airport security could beef up surveillance — the possibilities are endless.

It may be several decades before we get bionic eyes that perfectly restore visual acuity. Until then, scientists will be keeping a sharp eye out for every development

RESTORING SIGHT TO THE BLIND

  • A new visual implant from SecondSight may help restore useful sight in more than 6 million additional people who aren’t candidates for the company’s previous implant model.
  • Recently, there are more options being developed to restore both hearing and sight in affected patients, such technology has the potential to improve the quality of life of countless people.

Researchers have been innovating methods of restoring sight to the blind through a number of different ways. Now, a company is closer to bringing another device to the public with vision impairment. Second Sight, a developer and manufacturer of implantable visual prosthetics has successfully implanted the Orion I, in their first patient.

The Orion is a wireless visual cortical stimulator designed to restore sight to the blind. In a UCLA trial supported by Second Sight, a wireless multichannel neurostimulation system was implanted to a 30 year old patient’s visual cortex. The tests showed that the patient was able to perceive spots of light without any significant side effects.

The device itself is a slight modification to Second Sight’s other visual prosthetic, the Argus II. While the Argus II stimulates the remaining usable retinal cells of the eye itself, the Orion I seeks to bypass this by directly stimulating the visual cortex of the patient. Will McGuire, President and CEO at Second Sight says,“We believe this technology will ultimately provide a useful form of vision for the nearly six million people worldwide who are blind but not a candidate for an Argus II retinal prosthesis.”

The Argus II, Second Sight's FDA-approved visual prosthetic. Credit: Second Sight
The Argus II, Second Sight’s FDA-approved visual prosthetic. Credit: Second Sight

CLINICAL TRIALS AND BEYOND

The trial’s success, combined with the gathering of major pre-clinical work, Second Sight is poised to submit an application to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early 2017 for the approval to conduct initial clinical trials for the device.

However, it could take a long while before this technology could be released into the general public, as the FDA usually has stringent tests regarding these medical devices. If this device gains FDA-approval, it could improve on the quality of life for numerous people affected by blindness. “The Orion I has the potential to restore useful vision to patients completely blinded due to virtually any reason, including glaucoma, cancer, diabetic retinopathy, or trauma,” Dr. Robert Greenberg, Chairman of the Board of Second Sight said.

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