Bionic Vision in 2002

In this article from the September 2002 issue of Wired Magazine, Steven Kotler takes a look at the state of the art in artificial vision. Here’s a few hi-lights.

From Page 1:

Otherwise, the walls are white and bare. When the world’s first bionic eye is turned on, this is what Patient Alpha will see.
Wired 10.2002Our guinea pig is 39, strong and tall, with an angular jaw, bold ears, and a rugged face. He looks hale, hearty, and healthy — except for the wires. They run from the laptops into the signal processors, then out again and across the table and up into the air, flanking his face like curtains before disappearing into holes drilled through his skull.


Within seconds his lips have turned blue and his deadened eyes roll back, revealing bone-white pupils, lids snapping up and down like hydraulic window shades. There’s another warping convulsion, and spittle sails from his mouth. Since the doctor’s in a wheelchair and the techs seem hypnotized, I rush over and grab him.

“Call 911!” one of the computer techs shouts.

But the doctor yells back: “No!”

“Lie him down,” cries the other. “Get him some water!”


From Page 2:

For years the prototype sat in Jerry’s occipital lobe, largely unused.


When hooked up to a video camera, he sees only shades of gray in a limited field of vision. He also sees at a very slow rate. It helps to think of film. Normal film whirls by at 24 frames per second — but Jerry sees at merely a fifth of that speed. The effect, Dobelle tells me, is a bit like looking at snapshots in a photo album through holes punched in a note card.

Patient Alpha, on the other hand, has the full upgrade: the Dobelle Institute Artificial Vision System for the Blind. Because the system has yet to be patented, the doctor is cagey about specifics.

From Page 3:

And against a far wall stands an ancient computer, weighing 2 tons, complete with a punch-paper tape input and a Teletype output. It measures 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall.

“What is that for?” I ask.

“That was the first artificial-vision system, the one I built for Jerry. It’s my past. Thirty-four years of work and $25 million.”

THE COST HAS COME DOWN QUITE A BIT. ACCORDING TO A printout Dobelle hands me, the price tag for curing blindness is now around $115,000


“It was wonderful,” says Jens. “It is wonderful. After 18 years in a dark jail, I finally got to look out the door into the sunlight.”


“Wow!” says Jens.

“Wow what?” I ask.

“I’m really using the part of my brain that’s been doing dick-all for two decades.”

“And that’s only one implant,” says Dobelle. “We still have to integrate the other side, and we haven’t installed the edge-recognition software yet. The image is going to get better and better.”

From Page 4:

In fact, to most of the artificial-vision community, Dobelle’s breakthrough came out of the blue. For years he had been merely a footnote, known mainly for his early work in phosphene stimulation. People had heard of Jerry, but because the testing was done privately, outside of academia, many felt the work suspect.


Normann also envisions a three-part system — implant, signal processor, camera — but with a critical difference. While Dobelle’s implant rests on the surface of the visual cortex, Normann’s would penetrate it.

Normann’s implant is much smaller than Dobelle’s — about the size of a nail’s head and designed to be hammered into the cortex, sinking to the exact spot in the brain where normal visual information is received. According to Normann, the implant is so precise that each electrode can stimulate individual neurons.


Like the competition, Humayun uses eyeglass-mounted video cameras and signal processors to generate an image, but unlike Normann’s and Dobelle’s neuroprostheses, his implant sits atop the retina. It’s designed to take the place of damaged rods and cones by jump-starting the still-healthy ones and then use the eye’s own signal processing components — the ganglion cells and optic nerve — to send visual information to the brain.

“It’s a limited approach, aimed at a limited number of pathologies, but it has its advantages,” says Humayun. “We thought it was a better idea to operate on a blind eye than on a normal brain.”

From Page 5:

“What happened?” I ask. “Did you up the resolution again?”

“No,” says Weiland, “that’s your brain learning to see.”



Read the entire article @ the Wired Archive


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