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Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Emerging Era of Human/Machine Interface

"Everything has to be very small. The smaller, the greater the chance for success."
"We're trying to have an all-in solution. This is a little more complicated [turning light into electricity efficiently] because you're working with an eye."
Ross Cheriton, University of Ottawa PhD student

"Blindness is devastating. Our aim is to have people recognize the faces in front of them and [to] lead a more independent life."
"We don't know where this will lead. We're just beginning. We may be able to use artificial intelligence to relay information that the chip can pick up. Who knows?"
Suzanne Grant, co-founder, CEO, iBIONICS
Ross Cheriton, a PhD student in physics at the University of Ottawa, is working on a micro chip (at right) that will power a "bionic eye" (created by Ottawa startup, iBionics) which will hopefully restore sight for the blind and others within five years. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

There are already bionic eyes in circulation commercially used to aid people without natural sight to 'see' what they could not otherwise. What they see, however, is restricted to shapes and to light. It is still not possible for these people using bionic eyes to read, or to identify features of the faces that might be a hands-breadth away, so the unsighted are only slightly benefited by modern engineering science.

The ambition of an Ottawa company is to develop a new, improved bionic eye that would be capable of doing what the current ones cannot; to replace human eyesight as nearly as possible with tiny transplants and a new source of energy to enable it to function. The bionic eye now on the market for human use is a "retinal prosthesis system", that saw European regulatory approval in 2011 and two years later in the United States.

The system is comprised  of a camera mounted on the frames of eyeglasses feeding a signal to electrodes that have been implanted at the back of the user's eye. The brain's visual cortex enables the user to "see" what appears before them when the optic never is stimulated by an ensuing signal. But there are limits to the ease of use, comfort and the resulting clarity of vision provided by this older bionic eye.

eBIONICS has involved itself in the development of what it has labelled the "Diamond Eye" (a minuscule 3.4-mm box of lab-produced diamond holding the chip) carrying electricity without causing a shock because of the compatibility of diamond with the human body. This advanced version would not require the awkward components currently utilized by the bionic eyes on the market.
Orly Shamir wears the Argus II retinal prosthesis system, a bionic eye that is already on the market.
Orly Shamir wears the Argus II retinal prosthesis system, a bionic eye that is already on the market. Darren Calabrese / THE CANADIAN PRESS

At the present time implanted chips must rely on wires threaded through the wall of the eye which deliver the camera signal and the electrical power required to operate it. The chip of the "Diamond Eye" was developed in Australia, and is meant to be implanted beside the patient's retina, to work like a tiny solar panel, absorbing light from a tiny laser mounted on frames worn by the user. As the laser, aimed into the eye does its part, the chip converts light into electricity to power the implant.

A higher visual resolution will ensue, along with the advance of no wires being required and recharging becoming obsolete. The bionic eyes currently in use feature 60 to 150 electrodes, whereas the "Diamond Eye" has over one thousand electrodes. Ms. Grant of iBIONICS feels confident that in two years' time the bionic eye will have advanced to the point where small-scale clinical trials will be occurring. In five years' time, she feels it will be ready for consideration of FDA approval.

A two-hour surgical procedure would be required to implant the chip, with the implant and the surgery coming in at a cost of roughly $75,000. The new process in development is intended for ease of use and improved resolution. There is also the potential that technology such as it represents might offer benefits beyond what nature has prepared humans to perceive through normal eyesight. It is not beyond expectations that the capacity for night vision, or a hugely enhanced visual acuity might also ensue.
The chip has over 1,000 electrodes.
The chip has more than 1,000 electrodes. Julie Oliver / Postmedia

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