If you are a fan of the television show Star Trek: Next Generation, you will be familiar with the character of Geordi LaForge, played by actor LaVar Burton. LaForge is a member of the engineer corps on the starship Enterprise. He was born blind, yet is able to see through a prosthetic device that is placed in front of his eyes and transmits information to his visual cortex.
What was once fiction is becoming reality. The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System (featured in the May 17, 2016 blog entry, “The Future of Vision Is Now”) has shown promise in helping blind persons navigate better. Yet, it isn’t the only option available. A company in France, Pixum Vision, announced that 10 patients have had its IRIS® II bionic vision system implanted as part of a clinical trial. (The trial is being conducted in France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Austria, and Germany.) The IRIS® II is similar to the Argus® II in that it has a camera installed in glasses that delivers visual information to the wearer. It is different from the Argus® II in three ways:
• The IRIS® II chip has 150 pixels, whereas the Argus® II chip has 60. This increase leads to higher resolution vision. For comparison, the iPhone 6 camera has 8,000 pixels.
• The camera in the IRIS® II only transmits changes in the wearer’s visual field. Doing this makes the device more efficient since it is not capturing everything in the visual field, like the Argus® II does.
• The IRIS® II chip is made in such a way that it can be easily replaced with upgraded models.
The Pixum Vision IRIS® II bionic vision system is not currently available in the U.S. The company is seeking regulatory approval in the U.S. so that it can offer the device to Americans.
Additionally, Pixum Vision is also working on the PRIMA®, a bionic retinal system that involves the implantation of photovoltaic (light-sensitive) diodes underneath the retina. These diodes are designed to provide 5,000 pixels and form better connection with the existing retina tissue than epi-retinal chips. The implantation process with the PRIMA® can be compared to installing solar panels in the eye. Users of the PRIMA® will wear glasses that transmit visual information and power the diodes, thereby stimulating the retina.
While people with these devices won’t be able to see full images, what they do see is an improvement over blurry or no vision. Patients with the IRIS® II system report that it helps them accomplish visual tasks such as: identifying whether a staircase goes up or down, identifying a car, and identifying static objects such as the Eiffel Tower. As technology improves, so will the devices. So, the day is coming when those who are blind won’t have to resign themselves to diminishing vision. They will have options thanks to research and technology. Now, if only someone would develop a holodeck!