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Jun 2013

THOUSANDS of Australians living in permanent darkness could be able to see light and shapes for the first time through a new bionic eye being developed at Monash University.

Through world-first wireless technology and a computer processor that sits inside the brain, the blind will be able to make out shapes through a series of mapping dots after they put on a pair of sunglasses.

Around 300,000 Australians have substantial vision impairment and around 20,000 are totally blind, according to the Australian Network on Disability.

It is estimated 85 per cent of that 20,000 will have some vision through this prototype-stage technology, compared to only 10 per cent now.

Much like Google Glass, which allows users to take photos from a pair of glasses, the device takes information from a glasses-mounted camera and sends it, via a wireless transmitter, into the brain.

This vision takes the form of basic shapes made of light, much like looking at a line of stars. Bluesky Design Group director Professor Mark Armstrong, who was also involved in designing the Nexus 5 Cochlear Implant for the deaf, said they are hoping to do the first trial on a human by mid next year.
"All indications are the that the technology is working smoothly towards the first implant next year, he said.

"It will enable someone who is completely blind to see edges of tables and footpath in a coarse, dot-type matrix, enough to give them mobility and connect them to their loved ones.
"It is part of a long list of new technologies that will invade the body.

"It is going lead to further iterations as more miniaturisation takes place, higher resolution of images, more knowledge about brain function.

The implant is about the size of a fingernail and has a similar processing power to a smartphone.
Project head Professor Arthur Lowry, from the Monash Vision Group, said this is the first in-human cortical implant which has a wireless link.

"A small amount of information to someone who has no vision at all is enormously useful," he said.
"We've spoken to people and they don't know in which direction the window is.

"It is scary wondering who is at a meeting and not knowing whether they are paying attention.
"We're using sophisticated algorithms to extract information from a complex scene.

"For example, in an office meeting you might want to see who is in the meeting and around the table.

"So we could represent each person by an emoticon showing whether they are paying attention or agreeing.

"Outside, we have a mode that detects... a free path from A to B, so you can navigate from A to B without bumping into things.

The $15 million project is sure to have massive impact because of its broad appeal.

The designers estimate it will be able to help in 85 per cent of cases of blindness, 75 per cent more than current technologies which are inserted into the retina, not the brain.

This is because most people with blindness have a damaged eye, excluding them from using the current, retina-based technology.

Prof Lowry added that unlike other vision-for-the-blind technology, there is no need to have a permanent hole in the head for the wires to connect to the processor, which lies outside the body.
"Other (technology) had to carry a lunch box of electronics and a connector on the head, cutting the skin, breaking the biological barrier, he said.

"The wireless link is key. When you want to work, you put on the headgear, but if you want to sleep at night you take it off and there is no connector to lie on, no connector to leak or get damaged."

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