Over the past five years I have followed with interest the progress, and promises, of the bionic eye, a technology marvel that would eventually provide an artificial retina to people who have lost it.
Beyond the tremendous help that such an eye will provide to blind people from a pure technology evolution viewpoint it has been an amazing lesson in research and innovation. It took scientists and researchers many years, first to understand what the optical nerve needed in terms of signal to transfer images to the brain, than research on how to create a bionic eye that could see and communicate to the optical nerve and then plenty of engineering to make it viable.
The most advanced bionic eye in 2015 is the Argus II, it was also the first to get FDA permission to be implanted. Now the results of clinical study on 30 of these implants over a period of three years are available.
The implant so far has been used as a prosthetic of people who became blind as result of retinitis pigmentosa, people who had little or no perception of light left (i.e. completely blind).
The study revealed that all implants are still working after three years of use, that 1/3 of the patients had problems immediately after the implant but they were all corrected (with one exception who needed to have the implant removed).
All the 29 patients that still have the implant are reporting an increased quality of life and are able to better orient themselves with the limited vision provided by the implant. Indeed, the Argus II captures the images through an external camera worn on a pair of glasses and a computer convert the image in a matrix of 64 points (pixels) that are sent to the optical nerve by the implant (communication between the external and the implant is done using radio signals). The vision is limited by the very low resolution of which the Argus is capable (this is the result of constraints deriving from the low power that can be used, the spatial resolution of the implant with respect to the optical nerve and the coding of the signals). Nevertheless, the clinical study proves that this is indeed a bionic eye that can help.
In the meantime researchers are working on more advanced implant, like the Alpha IMS subretinal microchip that provides a resolution of 1,500 pixels (with this resolution it becomes possible to recognise faces) or the Stanford University photovoltaic subretinal prosthetics that has a resolution of 178 pixels per square mm.
Back in the year 2000 this was a technology dream but researchers did promise at that time that by 2012 a bionic eye would have been ready, and they kept their promise. This is amazing!