The dream of artificial vision

Towards the bionic eye...

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The great prize throughout the history of artificial eyes has been the pursuit of replacement eyes that actually see, however for most of history this dream has seemed too unrealistic to pursue seriously. Early efforts in the second half of the twentieth century involved head mounted camera-type contraptions that would have had serious cosmetic drawbacks whatever their functional benefits. They did not deflect attention!

In March 1994 one respected British journal could declare: 
artificial eyes - not something contemporary ophthalmologists spend much time on

Bionic eye press cutting

The artificial eye maker was still considered a somewhat peculiar character as evidenced by the portrayal of Hannibal Chew, creator of Nexus 6 Replicant eyes, in the cult film Blade Runner (1982). This situation was starting to change, albeit slowly. Artificial retina development was pioneered at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. In 1994 surgeons implanted an electrode to the eye of a blind patient who claimed to be able to see a black dot surrounded by a yellow ring. 

In the Spring of 1997 a professor of electrical engineering, Wentai Liu, created a microchip for surgical use that had an array of pixels sufficient to identify individual letters. Concurrent work on bio-compatibility at Stanford University resulted in a new synthetic cell membrane that could adhere to living cells and silicon chips. An ocular prosthesis with a ‘bionic eyelid’ made of elastic latex was developed at Humboldt University, Berlin in 1999.

Ongoing research throughout the 1990s into replicating the function of the retina led to the announcement in 2003 by the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology in Fort Lauderdale that three US patients had been implanted with a sliver of silicone and platinum studded with sixteen electrodes which stimulated remaining healthy retinal cells and this passed visual information to the optic nerve.

We might conclude from this growing area of interest that there is consequently even a possibility of the term ‘artificial eye’ changing its common meaning and becoming the concern, if not the preserve, of the ophthalmologist rather than the ocularist-optician.

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