Clinical trials of a pair of smartglasses designed to help legally blind people to see and read letters again are currently taking place in two cities in the United States. The “bionic eye” technology is made by a Paris-based biotech firm called Pixium Vision. It consists of a visor-like pair of glasses featuring an embedded camera. Images captured by the camera are beamed to a microchip implanted in the wearer’s retina. This signal is then converted into electrical signals that can be understood by the brain.
Participants in the trial had no central vision prior to the microchips being implanted. One year after the chips were implanted, the majority have regained the ability to read to some extent. Some can read only individual letters, while others are able to read sequences of letters. The image created by the implant is just 378 pixels in total. While this is far from restoring a person’s vision to 20/20, it nonetheless represents a significant improvement.
The hope is that it could be used to treat patients with eye conditions such as macular degeneration, which cannot currently be reversed. Macular degeneration affects the area of the retina that is responsible for the central part of a person’s vision. As a result, people with extreme cases of macular degeneration can have the middle part of their frame of vision either severely blurred or entirely dark. Pixium Vision’s implant could also potentially be used to treat retinitis pigmentosa. This group of genetic conditions results in the progressive loss of photoreceptors in the eye. The technology can not be used for people who were born blind. That’s because it requires a fully developed optic nerve.
The current U.S. trials are taking place in Pittsburgh and Miami. Another, larger-scale study is planned to be carried out in Europe in 2020.
This isn’t the only smart technology being tested out for blind patients at the moment. Researchers at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine are testing a device called Orion, which works in a similar way. It has already resulted in partial sight being restored to six participants in an experimental study.