Step aside Google, here come the real bionic glasses

Natural sight is a thing of the past.
Natural sight is a thing of the past.
Image: AP Photo/Martin Cleaver
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

You may or may not be able to get a full head transplant in the next few years but acquiring a new set of eyes has become sure thing.

In the US, people suffering from a degenerative eye disease, late stage retinitis pigmentosa (RP), may be able to receive what doctors are calling a “bionic eye” implant that restores limited sight. Called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, or simply Argus II, this new implant was approved by the FDA in February of this year, but only now goes into broad testing by a small group of specialist eye centers.

The Argus II, developed by a company called Second Sight, works by combining a small camera mounted on glasses with a special grid of 60 electrodes implanted surgically at the back of the patient’s damaged retina. Images captured by the glass-mounted camera are wirelessly transmitted to the electrodes, stimulating remaining healthy retinal nerves to detect light patterns that the damage created by RP normally hinders. The system should allow for a simple black, white and grey image to be perceived at roughly 60 pixels’ width. The system has already been tested in limited fashion with success, which means it can now go on to be used by 12 American clinics.

Argus II isn’t the first retinal implant system—researchers around the world are working on various techniques to get to a similar goal, using various configurations of nanowires to deliver impulses (as a team from UC-San Diego is doing), putting all components on a chip (as attempted at Israel’s NanoRetina), or taking different routes into the retina (as a German-Hungarian team is attempting). Advances in miniaturization and nanomaterials are allowing these and other development projects to get to smaller, lighter components, and allow experimentation with different structural approaches.

Meanwhile, if your vision is healthy, but annoying earbuds are the bane of your existence, you could follow the work of Rich Lee, who recently inserted rare-earth magnets into his ears to create a kind of simple embedded sound receivers. A so-called grinder, or implant body hacker, Lee told VentureBeat this first trial with magnets, inserted by a friend, gives him simple sound reception, but he plans to go larger with additional magnets, and connect to mics and apps as his experiment evolves. Others have experimented with magnets in fingers and other implants to get a different sensory feel for the world around us, which is increasingly digitally processed anyway.

The question is, who will get to a fully-functioning sensory cyborg set-up first, the grinders or the doctors? At this point, a DIY cyborg could get there, just in a much less refined (and tested) fashion.