Bionic eyes— also referred to as cybernetic eyes— are closer than you think!
While I was researching this post, I tweeted a quick poll. Even with a disappointingly small sample size, my results were unanimous.
THE EYES HAVE IT
If you could only keep one of your five senses, which one would you choose?
To put it another way, which is your favorite of the five senses? Which sense would you want enhanced?
SIGHT! Let’s take a look at that!
EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL
Throughout history, in art, culture, music, (ironic since music is a hearing-based discipline) eyes were considered a precious gift. Eyes unveil the world to our consciousness. Others read our eyes to see our thoughts.
Ancient cultures used eyes in art. From amulets for protection to giving the evil eye with a curse, to decoration, the eyes had everyone’s attention.
I thought that, ‘eyes are the window of the soul’ was written by Shakespeare, but it’s not! It’s considered a traditional proverb.
THE EYE IS THE MOST DOMINANT SENSING ORGAN
It’s no wonder that everyone who voted, choose vision. Sight is a human’s dominant sense. In fact, studies show that our brains acquire more than 80% of information about our surroundings via our eyes.
The eye is a complicated organ. It takes a stimulus, light, which is made of electromagnetic waves that travel at 186,000 miles per second (FAST), and converts the light to usable information in our brains.
The visible spectrum of light is quite narrow too. For more about the light spectrum and a chart, read here.
In the Harry Potter series, a wizard named Mad Eye Mooney lost one eye when battling death eaters, and was given a prosthetic eye. His eye could swivel around like a chameleon, see through walls and even invisibility cloaks. (For more on the magic of invisibility, I have a post here!)
What about replacing an eye, for real, not in an imaginary land of wizards?
THE TERMS CYBERNETIC EYES AND BIONIC EYES ARE INTERCHANGABLE
The idea of artificial vision began over two centuries ago in 1752 with the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who postulated to the Royal Society of London that sight and hearing could be restored with the use of electricity.
Franklin seemed quite preoccupied with electricity.
In case you’re wondering, Franklin ‘flying a kite with a key in a lightning storm‘ is a myth. This STEM experiment works perfectly to conduct electricity, but the current produced would have killed him. (mythbusters episode if you want to take a gander)
RESTORING VISION WITH ELECTRICAL STIMULATION
The idea caught on.
Perhaps after reading Benjamin Franklin’s theory, a French scientist named Charles Leroy decided to investigate. In 1755, he strapped some poor guy up with wires and and zapped him with electricity. The blind volunteer reported seeing ‘visual disturbances.’
I just find it disturbing!
Flash forward (intentional pun) to 1970.
Blind people were implanted with electrical stimulators. Subjects did see flashes of light!
But the brain could not interpret the signals. Their hair started on fire. It was a valiant attempt but this tech was in its infancy.
EYE PROSTHETICS ARE MECHANICAL
It would be so cool if implants looked like this AND functioned.
Eye prosthetics have come a long way! 3-D printing is making some realistic replacements, down to the intricate blood vessels.
They are for aesthetics only, with no function. They are considered a replacement for when someone has lost an eye due to disease, trauma, or disfigurement.
These replacements are not cybernetic (bionic).
EYE ANATOMY AND FUNCTION
Here’s a quick synopsis of the eye and how it works. It sounds like magic!
Light enters through the pupil rushing in at 186,000 miles per second.
The iris, or colored portion of our eyes, controls how much light enters.
Next, light passes through the lens. The lens works together with the cornea to focus light correctly on the retina.
This is where glasses come in, adjusting the focus of the light.
When light hits the retina (a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye), special cells called photoreceptors turn the light waves into electrical signals.
The retina is made up of approximately 131 million photoreceptors. These are the rods and cones you probably learned about in school.
These electrical signals travel from the retina through the optic nerve to the brain. The brain turns the signals into the images we see.
More science magic.
With so many visually impaired people, researchers continue their work to cure blindness!
In 2011, the number of visually impaired people is ~ 285 million. 39 million are blind. (ouch)
We can replace livers, lungs, and hearts. Remove cataracts and replace them with new lenses. But what about an entire eye?
RETINAL IMPLANTS OR BIONIC EYES AKA CYBERNETIC EYES
The only commercially available and approved bionic (cybernetic) eyes –in actuality– are retinal implants. That term doesn’t sound as cool but it IS cool!
In brief below…
BIONIC EYES : SCIENCE FICTION BECOMING FACT
Restoring sight by feeding signals directly to the brain is ambitious. We have pacemakers to regulate our hearts and cochlear implants (since 1961!) for hearing. Why not our dominant sense?
Am I sensationalizing this? If you’re vision impaired, nope. Is a bionic eye without cameras or glasses beyond our reach?
One of the difficulties fabricating a hands-free prosthetic eye–as opposed to a retinal implant–is the shape of the retina.
New research is aimed to change that. Scientists used a curved, aluminum oxide membrane embedded with nanosized sensors made of perovskite.
Pervoskite is a material with a 3-D crystal structure that surrounds an ion with light absorbing properties. Different ions could be interspersed between the crystals to absorb different wavelengths of light.
This material has practical applications in solar cells, lasers, high-temperature superconductivity. Pervoskite is now synthesized in labs, but it is an actual mineral that was discovered in 1839.
I’m cheering them on!
Meanwhile, the above retinal implants jack into the brain and do provide rudimentary vision. It’s a start!
Maybe someday soon, the vision-impaired will have bionic eyes that enable them to see color and smell the flowers, or watch a lovely sunset while listening to the waves. And taste chocolate with their eyes first
Bionic eyes are out there! This amazing tech could change the lives of millions of visually-impaired people all over the world!
Would you be willing to wear weird glasses or carry a battery-pack to restore your vision?