Remember that amazing story where a British man’s central vision was restored with a bionic eye implant? He joins a growing number of people with little to no sight who are now being offered new hope with bionic eye implants. But what would the world look like to someone with a bionic eye? Researchers have created some amazing simulations to get a better understanding of what people who undergo this surgery see.
Researchers from the University of Washington wanted to create a simulation so that people who undergo sight restoration surgery know what to expect. The last few years have seen considerable interest in developing technologies to tackle the growing number of people with vision loss. Currently, more than 20 million Americans aged 18 and older have experienced vision loss and the American Foundation for the Blind predicts that number will double by 2030.
Previously, patients would have had to use a “scoreboard model” to get a rough idea of what their restored vision might look like. This provides them with a grid of dots, where each electrode produces a visible dot in space, and these dots are collectively meant to show what their restored vision will look like. Researchers, however, describe the scoreboard model as “inadequate.”
“This is the first visual simulation of restored sight in any realistic form,” lead author Ione Fine, a UW associate professor of psychology, said in a statement. “Now we can actually say, ‘this is what the world might look like if you had a retinal implant.’”
For the study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions B, researchers looked into the two most promising devices being used, which both target surviving cells in the retina. One device is an electric prosthesis that stimulates the cells using an array of electrodes, and the other is optogenetics, which regains vision by inserting light-sensitive proteins into the cells. Prosthetics currently require cameras to capture the visual scene, which is then translated into either a light or electrical stimulation.
They researchers were able to create short videos that showed the blurred outlines and fuzzy, comet-like shapes patients end up seeing. Patients may also experience temporary visual disappearances if an object moves too quickly.
Researchers suggest these simulations highlight the shortcomings of both technologies, but may also provide important information on how these implants could be improved.
“As these devices start being implanted in people, we can compare different types of devices and the different perceptual outcomes of each,” Fine said. “The path to fully restored eyesight is an elusive target. We need to start developing more sophisticated models of what people actually see.
“Until we do that, we’re just shooting in the dark in trying to improve these implants.”