Imagine, if you will, a revolutionary new technology that sidesteps visual impairment and allows a blind person to process visual information by transmitting braille patterns directly into their retina. Might sound like the stuff of science fiction (a la Geordi LaForge), but thanks to a recent development by the company Second Sight, it is scientific fact. In what was a medical first, researchers tested the device by streaming Braille patterns directly into a patient’s retina, allowing them to read visually with almost 90% accuracy.
“It’s basically a cochlear implant, but for the eyes,” says Thomas Lauritzen, Senior Research Scientist at SMP and lead author of the study. But whereas the cochlear implant circumvents dead hair cells on the inner ear that respond to acoustic signals, the Argus II device circumvents photoreceptors, the cells in the human eye that measure light. By combining a retinal implant with the headset which work together to read the environment and transmit the information to the optical nerve, the device will allow the visually impaired to see color, movement, and objects.
Unfortunately, according to Lauritzen, the new eye device is about 30 years behind the technology of the cochlear implant. Whereas the device is capable of translating larger objects reliably, it has some troubles conveying smaller visual cues, such as letters and short sentences. It was for this reason that Lauritzen and his research team turned to streaming braille instead of normal text. This test bypassed the usual configuration of a camera and the neuroprosthetic implant and sent the electrical information directly into the implant itself. So instead of feeling Braille with their finger tips, the patient was actually able to see the succession of Braille symbols streaming onto their retina.
And the results were incredibly encouraging, with tests being conducted with 50 patients. According to the team’s report: “For this specific visual Braille project, we were able to increase reading speeds by more than 20-fold.” What’s next for the Argus II? Hopefully, FDA approval to begin large-scale production and distribution in the United States and elsewhere. And with time and improvements, it just might result in vision loss being restored for countless people!
Check out a video of the Argus II in action below: