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The Blind Shall See Again, But When? 226

Posted by timothy
from the better-repaint-their-room dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Restoring hearing with cochlea implants that replace the inner ear with an electronic version has become standard procedure for many types of deafness. Now it looks like the same thing might happen for many types of blindness. With five national labs funded by the Department of Energy, this third-generation artificial retina promises to enable the blind to see again soon. Already it has been successful in over a dozen test patients, but at resolutions too low for doing much more than proving the concept. However, if the DoE can perfect this larger version of an artificial retina, then the company Second Sight promises to commercialize the implant, aiming for VGA resolution within the decade."
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The Blind Shall See Again, But When?

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  • by caffeinemessiah (918089) on Friday February 19, 2010 @04:37PM (#31203684) Journal
    If they achieve VGA resolution, it's a steady road to full vision for the blind. I'm more interested in, at this point, exceeding human abilities. Think of the case of HDR imaging [wikipedia.org] -- we currently don't have monitors (most of us at least) that are high dynamic range themselves, so images have to be "tone-mapped" to the dynamic range of our monitors, which often results in those ridiculously sharp but somewhat "unrealistic" [flickr.com] pictures you see on Flickr.

    It would be cool if, say, the IR spectrum or just more dynamic range in the visible spectrum could be tone-mapped to human perception in this way, resulting in perceptually sharper images by way of a direct retinal implant.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Why stop at the ir spectrum, why not go full spectrum? Maybe with a remote control. Make Geordi's visor seem like a toy. How much information can we cram into the visual cortex?

      • by flaming error (1041742) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:06PM (#31204126) Journal

        Make sure you include some kind of tuner, because I don't want to have to see Radio Disney nor the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. But full-body scans at the airport might be a fun channel - those x-ray glasses I ordered when I was 12 didn't work.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          those x-ray glasses I ordered when I was 12 didn't work

          You must have had a defective pair.

          The ones I had when I was living in southern France worked perfectly.

      • by natehoy (1608657) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:16PM (#31204248) Journal

        Actually, quite a lot, as long as we are willing to give up accurate color perception in the spectrum we see in now. The human visual system can differentiate, say, ten million colors (guesstimate). That's across a very small band of the spectrum we could make visible if we chose to. Index the new frequencies to perceived colors and we might be able to differentiate a few hundreds of thousands of colors in our currently-visual spectrum, but we'll also be able to differentiate various frequencies of ultraviolet and infrared light. So, for example anything in shades of blue represents UV light, and anything in shades of red represents IR, and the colors we see today are perceived as little more than shades of grey with a blue or red tint.

        I, for one, would gladly give up the ability to differentiate eggshell from ecru if it meant I could see in the UV and IR spectra, though I strongly suspect the transition would be best done slowly. That much new unfamiliar input introduced all at once might have profoundly unfortunate effects on the human psyche...

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          I believe the opposite; that the human brain would actually create a new color for the UV/IR bands... the person with the ability to see this color would describe it as being indescribable, the same way it is impossible for a human to accurately describe the colors we have now.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by natehoy (1608657)

            It depends on how it's implemented. Remember, we're taking the actual eye and replacing it. You've got to first reproduce the existing signal, then you've got to figure out how to map any new signals we don't already send.

            First, we have to throw out practical limitations on current technology and say we've reached a point where we can accurately reproduce the full resolution of human sight AND we have a sensor that can detect ten million discrete colors per pixel, and that we've found a way to tap into th

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Fyzzler (1058716)
              There are already people out there who can see more than the normal human spectrum.
              Tetrachomacy [wikipedia.org]

              So I think the potential is already there.
              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by evilWurst (96042)

                If you read the linked article, though, they don't see more spectrum: their extra receptors are in between red and green. In other words, they see the difference between certain shades or color more accurately than the rest of us, but they don't see any "new" colors that the rest of us can't see.

            • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

              by poopdeville (841677)

              It depends on how it's implemented. Remember, we're taking the actual eye and replacing it. You've got to first reproduce the existing signal, then you've got to figure out how to map any new signals we don't already send.

              Eh, no. You just send them, and let the brain learn how to decode the signals, just like your brain did when you were an infant. You LEARNED to see in the first place.

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by BananaBender (958326)
                Well, just dumping the extended color data onto the brain might not be enough. When a child learns to see, its brain already has the basic visual perception algorithms hard-coded, e.g. there are brain structure for color detection, edge detection, motion detection etc. Those structures are built from the DNA, the genetic material, so the brain does not start learning from scratch.
                Only those structures allow a child to pick up seeing as fast as it does (the process of learning to see in humans is necessary
          • by shentino (1139071)

            You mean like octarine?

        • Actually, quite a lot, as long as we are willing to give up accurate color perception in the spectrum we see in now.

          Or give up seeing in the visible spectrum while viewing other ranges. It would also be possible to shift the range and just remap the existing color depths.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by dido (9125)

          Well, one could also use the imaginary colors [wikipedia.org] that correspond to those particular combinations of cone cell responses in the human eye which cannot be produced by any physical source of light. The human eye has three types of color-sensitive cone cells, short-wavelength (blue), medium-wavelength (green), and long-wavelength (red). The trouble is, the spectral sensitivity of these three types of cone cells overlap, so any physical source of light would probably excite at least two, most likely all three ty

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          I, for one, would gladly give up the ability to differentiate eggshell from ecru if it meant I could see in the UV and IR spectra, though I strongly suspect the transition would be best done slowly. That much new unfamiliar input introduced all at once might have profoundly unfortunate effects on the human psyche...

          You actually can see very faintly in IR. If you wear visible-spectrum opaque, but IR-transparent glasses, you can maneuver through the environment just by its heat output. It's dark, but doable.

    • ... in military application? Robo-cops, emergency responders, and others of similar categories of future application will most definitely benefit from advanced imaging.
      HUD capabilities as well -- non-disruptive arrows near the peripheral regions of your vision guiding you to the nearest McDonalds when you ask for it. It won't stop there, "Aps" for your new vision capabilities will spring up -- virtual retinal compass, retinal level (yes, you only need two hands to make sure that picture frame is straight),

      • by hoggoth (414195)

        > ... in military application? Robo-cops, emergency responders, and others of similar categories of future application will most definitely benefit from advanced imaging.
        HUD capabilities as well -- non-disruptive arrows near the peripheral regions of your vision guiding you to the nearest McDonalds when you ask for it. It won't stop there, "Aps" for your new vision capabilities will spring up -- virtual retinal compass, retinal level (yes, you only need two hands to make sure that picture frame is straig

      • by timeOday (582209)

        ... in military application? Robo-cops, emergency responders, and others of similar categories of future application will most definitely benefit from advanced imaging.

        Of course they already do HUDs, monacles, IR goggles, binoculars, eyeglasses.

        What improvements are not covered by any of the above?

        Ripping out something that works for replacement would be a huge leap,and I don't see sufficient reason to do so. Our eyes already have ample bandwidth to saturate our brains.

    • by Rei (128717) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:03PM (#31204078) Homepage

      the company Second Sight promises to commercialize the implant, aiming for VGA resolution within the decade.

      And, if they achieve VGA resolution, you can just get the next upgrade [xkcd.com] in software [gamedev.net]!

       

    • by natehoy (1608657) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:05PM (#31204108) Journal

      If they achieve better than VGA resolution, it's a steady road to needing HDMI cables, and I'm not convinced they will fit. ;)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by jellomizer (103300)

      320x200 8 bits. Life would be a game of Doom.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by timeOday (582209)
        I am really curious what resolution you would need to simulate human vision. Not that many. Our vision is really terrible outside a tiny area (the fovea). We only have 6 or 7 million cones, and those have well under a pixel's worth of information each (they're monochromatic, for one thing, and several might have to fire together to be perceptible - I don't know).

        I'm pretty sure you don't need, for example, the 15 megapixels that a modern SLR gives you; the reason you need so many in an image or a monit

    • If they achieve VGA resolution, it's a steady road to full vision for the blind. I'm more interested in, at this point, exceeding human abilities.

      It's not as if to achieve one goal, we need to abandon the other goal. In fact, being able to give VGA resolution to the blind seems in many ways like it's on the path to achieving beyond human sight. Get an artificial retina that gets VGA resolution perfected. It will take a lot of money to get this right. Restoring sight is a payoff that will help fund refinements on that, like higher resolution artificial retinas, increased spectrum retinas etc.

      Furthermore, I suspect the main reason you're more inter

    • by caseih (160668)

      This comment struck me as kind of funny as one of the main, original, purposes of HDR imaging was to try to capture an image more like how the eye actually sees it. The eye can handle much broader ranges of light levels than most cameras, which means you can look out through a window and see the bright sky and still see the interior of the room pretty well.

      Our modern light sensors already have a pretty broad exposure range now, though, beyond the capabilities of our file formats and displays, so it seems t

      • by Zerth (26112)

        I'd be curious what the actual bandwidth/sensitivity of the optic nerve is. Tetrachromats have been shown to perceive a greater distinction of colors, but people with red-green color blindness have also been shown to be able to distinguish varieties of khaki better than normal sighted people.

        Are either of those groups gaining or losing bits of discrimination in relation to the number of cone types they have that would show a fixed amount of bandwidth?

        I suppose one would have to count the number of shades/t

    • by pz (113803) on Friday February 19, 2010 @06:16PM (#31205088) Journal

      I work in Visual Prosthetics.

      Here's the thing with any sort of augmented vision: there's no way you can justify the risks of implantation when a fully external device that shows whatever mapped, morphed, or manipulated version of vision will work as well or better.

      If you have normal sight, or even nearly normal sight, then why have an implant that carries significant risk, will be large and potentially painful for some time to come, will require frequent recharging, will be expensive as getout, when you can put on a special pair of glasses with a heads-up-display that does more? Telescopic vision, IR, UV, macroscopic, x-ray, edge enhanced, color shifted, depth enhanced, whatever you can think of, it is easier to do it with a head-worn high-tech display that you can take off at will.

      In contrast, having an implant means -- for any kind of implant that is under current consideration -- fixed resolution, and, unless you're willing to undergo significant, expensive surgeries, many of the interface parameters will be technologically fixed. Yes, there's a lot you can do with reprogramming, but it's essentially impossible to change the stimulating electrodes and their drivers.

      Trust me, you do not want a visual prosthesis unless you need one. The normal visual system, enhanced with purely external devices, will always be better.

      Any visual implant that is currently under discussion

  • by Tubal-Cain (1289912) on Friday February 19, 2010 @04:37PM (#31203686) Journal
    Try working on a VGA/DVI/HDMI/DisplayPort/whatever input, too. Bypass monitors altogether.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by lwsimon (724555)

      At some point, we should be able to modify perception via EM, so no need for implants. Disrupt the optic nerve and feed it artificial stimulation via a headband or similar, and provide a full immersive view. Ditto the other nerves, and you have immersive, convincing VR complete with non-tactile sensation....

      • The shadow government is already doing this. They are feeding audio signals to my brain by using secret antennas they implanted in my teeth [slashdot.org]. Clearly they are ready to move on to the next step of their evil scheme because they are making me type this to you too!
    • Whoa (Score:5, Funny)

      by MrEricSir (398214) on Friday February 19, 2010 @04:53PM (#31203950) Homepage

      Keanu Reeves approves of this idea.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by binarylarry (1338699)

        [Johnny and Jane have just broken into the computer warehouse]
        Johnny Mnemonic: [swipes a pile of circuit boards and components off the desk and says to no one in particular] I need a Sino-logic 16.
        Jane: [runs around the computer warehouse finding everything he calls for]
        Johnny Mnemonic: Sogo 7 Data Gloves, a GPL stealth module, one Burdine intelligent translator... Thompson iPhone.

  • Great! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Ziest (143204)

    Who says the age of miracles is over?

  • What does the Department of Energy has to do with the development of an artificial retina?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by binarylarry (1338699)

      It'll be interesting when they start offering bonuses to any military staff who opt in to a "Predator Vision" program.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by lwsimon (724555)

      Agreed, this seems more like a Dept. of Defense issue.

    • That immediately jumped out at me too.

      Shouldn't the Department of Energy be funding startups and projects to solve the looming energy crisis?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Surt (22457)

        But by eliminating the need for artificial lighting with superior eyes, they could get rid of 38% of the US energy usage. Frankly, nothing they can possibly do will have any substantially better yield than that.

    • What does the Department of Energy has to do with the development of an artificial retina?

      Ideally they saw good science that needed funding and funded it even though it didn't fall neatly into their mission statement. I'd rather have them spending money on something that appears to be paying off than funding more repetitive studies which will tell us again that clean coal really isn't good for anything.

    • by Surt (22457)

      Eliminating the need for artificial lighting = 38+% of all energy usage gone.

  • Blindness Sucks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by techsoldaten (309296) on Friday February 19, 2010 @04:40PM (#31203732) Journal

    My Dad just had a stroke and has no perception on the left side of his body.

    All I have been thinking about the last month is how to do something like this, set up something that can do motion detection and help him avoid collisions.

    You know, I would go for low resolution versus no resolution right now.

    M

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Unfortunately, stroke induced brain damage is likely the result of brain damage than damage to the retina.
      • Unfortunately, stroke induced brain damage is likely the result of brain damage than damage to the retina.

        Maybe it will turn out to be a good way of bypassing the damage. I'm not a neuroscientist or a medical professional, that statement is based entirely on the fact that weirder things have turned out to work for other medical problems. For example, I think few people would have had the foresight in the 1900's to guess that a substance isolated from fungi [wikipedia.org] would be a revolutionary medicine.

      • by MrTester (860336)

        Not necisarily true.
        A stoke (I think this is right, although I may have muddled medical terms)is a blood clot or plaque breaking off and getting lodged somewhere that does damage. Typically its the brain, but not always.
        My father in law recently had this happen and had a "stoke in his eye" which left one eye damaged and useless, but the brain is fine.
        This sounds like what the parent is talking about IF "no perception on one side of his body" is just visual perception and not feeling as well.

    • My Dad just had a stroke and has no perception on the left side of his body.

      Hmmm, but this isn't really blindness resulting from eye damage is it? It sounds to me like his problem is that the signals coming out of his left eye are being mapped into damaged brain tissue. It sounds like he just needs a new 'optical data input port' installed in his brain.

      It sounds so trivial, doesn't it? Just rerouting a few electrical impulses around a damaged network node...
    • Possible approach: I proposed this to a variety of people and was never able to get funding. Maybe it can help your Dad. Let me know if it does. It's cheap (especially compared to medical devices), relatively easy and doesn't require surgery. Please feel free to make a single one for home use, but I do reserve all commercial rights.

      Take a low res B&W camera
      Use an aduino or even palmtop to further lower the image quality to match the x by y of the 'display' you're going to make
      Output the image via ap

      • by Surt (22457)

        There's a very similar commercialized solution that involves micro-shocking the tongue.

  • by St.Creed (853824) on Friday February 19, 2010 @04:44PM (#31203798)

    This reminds me of a small girl we met at the swimmingpool (lessons), who had one visible cochlear implant. This girl turned out to be deaf from birth on both ears. I remarked to her mother that she could actually hear and talk amazingly well - I hadn't noticed anything in her speech. According to the doctors this was nigh impossible, but she had enough input from the 16 nerves to get perfect speech and reasonable hearing. She probably got very lucky with the connections on the nerves. So even with 16 nerves stimulated this could make a huge difference for someone who's blind, if they happen to hit the right connections.

    Yeah I know - anecdotal evidence and such. Still, I'm happy they get this far already.

    Oh, and I won't be upgrading my retina unless it matches the resolution of my computer display and comes with infrared, zoom and millimeterwave vision options. Preferably with scrolling 6502 assembly code on the left side as well :P

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's interesting that these visual implants directly stimulate the retina to send signals to the nervous system, while even the advanced cybernetic limbs such as DARPA's "Proto 2" are still using the kludge of reading electrical signals from muscles. As I understand it, the arm research is meant to eventually hook the limbs up directly to nerves (as has been done successfully, to some extent, with biological hand transplants), but the tech isn't quite there yet.

  • Cadmium sulfides - a fairly common photoreceptor - are sensitive to infrared. We might be able to do better than mother nature someday. Imagine being able to see in infrared.

  • However, if the DoE can perfect this larger version of an artificial retina, then the company Second Sight promises to commercialize the implant

    So if the government invents it, this company promises to make money from it? That's real philanthropy for you!

    • So if the government invents it, this company promises to make money from it? That's real philanthropy for you!

      Someone has to do it, unless you think the government should try making and selling these implants. As far as the "government inventing it" half, it would appear that private enterprises haven't invented it yet, and you have to wonder if it isn't because they weren't trying because they didn't think it would be profitable. The government might be selling the tech for a premium, maybe not. This might not be a very profitable enterprise, "Second Sight" might be taking a big risk here. The DoE might say "

    • This is standard practice. Government grants fund basic and applied research. Scientists get patents based on these discoveries which benefits the scientists and the host institutions and the venture capital companies which commercialize the discoveries. The government collects taxes. Sounds like a reasonable deal to me.

  • VGA resolution, cochlea implants? I can already see the headlines for ten years from now:

    "Larry Laffer Virus Strikes Again!"

    The Larry Laffer virus has taken its tenth victim in two days. Mental hospitals are seeing a surge of new patients admitted for hallucinations. The affected individuals report hearing strange low grade synthesized music and talk incoherently about lizards.

    The common connection between the cases appears to be a combination of cheap new electronic sight and hearing enhancements int

  • What happens when they get higher resolution, are sensitive to a wider spectrum, tunable images (contrast, enhancement, etc), connected to storage for recording and playback, cameras pointing in various directions or even remote ... who will get them? You don't think you'll get a job with that old wetware, do you?

  • URL Shorteners (Score:5, Insightful)

    by emkyooess (1551693) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:21PM (#31204296)

    Can we not use bit.ly and other URL shorteners on /.? There's no need to. They're harmful, actually. Thanks!

  • Or rather a rough equilevent of Moore's Law for CCD chip resolution, predicts that the resolution problem will vanish by next decade. Welcome Geordi, your visor will be ready before you are born.
  • The premise of this submission is that cochlear implants are uncontroversially good, but that just ain't so; there's a lot of people who have objections to cochlear implants themselves or the way they're pushed on to deaf children.

    The National Association of the Deaf's statement on the implants [nad.org] makes pretty good reading about this topic. They don't come against the implants as their own, but they do point out a number of problems that they perceive on their use:

    1. The implants are pushed on to parents of
    • by h4rr4r (612664) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:41PM (#31204574)

      1. This is the best cure we have so far
      2. They are deficient, they lack the ability to hear. Hate to hurt their feelings, but that is the truth. I am deficient in sight, so I use contacts.
      3. Not if they want to communicate with 99.9% of the world that uses sound to communicate instead of gestures.

      • Here's the difference between you and me: you insist on telling deaf children "the truth" about their "deficiency," outcomes be damned, whereas I really am interested in getting the best possible outcomes for them. So, to address your three points:

        1. "Best cure" by what measure? Ability to interpret and produce spoken language? Why is that the best measure of the outcome of deaf children treatment, as opposed to, say, high school graduation rates or standardized test scores (using written language tests)?
        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          1. The big picture is making them able to get jobs and have a normal life. Yes, that does mean interacting with the rest of the world who uses sound to communicate. I do not demand that all signs be printed in 14 foot high letters so I can read them without contacts.

          2.It is not macho posturing, I deal with my visual deficiency as they must deal with their auditory one. Telling them the truth is helpful, in that they see they have an extra burden to overcome and that many people have such disabilities. It is

  • by f8l_0e (775982) on Friday February 19, 2010 @05:37PM (#31204516)
    the man with 640x480 is king.
  • During world war 2 some soldiers were given a form of vitamin A that slightly changed the structure of the opsin molecule which the eye uses to detect light.

    This resulted in soldiers being able to see further into the red end of the spectrum and there are some reports that a few soldiers even saw the top of the infrared spectrum.

  • Anyone else find this odd? Is DoE the source of most medical research funding? I know they do a whole lot of work for the Dept of Defense, and actually I wish those projects were rolled up under the Dept of Defense budget for more accurate accounting (but that is another story). That said, this is awesome and I hope this technology advances at the same pace as Moore's Law
  • If the DOE (tax dollars) is funding the research, why the hell would the technology produced then become commercialized (capitalized) by a private business? Didn't we all pay for this, and so don't we all deserve to not pay the added costs of capitalization?

    Corruption is right out in the open. Look at it.

    • The government gets their cut. It's called taxes.

    • Using publicly funded research to improve lives directly by the government is an evil called Socialism. Using publicly funded research to improve lives by channeling the same technology through for-profit corporate channels is an ideal called Capitalism.

      I mean, isn't it obvious?

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