An eye to see

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“The Bionic Woman”*— what a great idea! Replace the non-functioning parts with the latest in technological implants and keep on ticking.

Jaime Somers went on to use the special abilities given to her by bionics to solve a host of the world’s problems. The series hit the airwaves in the 1970s, when portable pacemakers (1957) and hip replacements (1960) were still new medical advances and shortly after the first human heart transplant (1967.)

It was becoming believable a lot of human anatomy could be replaced, if not with human organs, then with engineered or electronic ones. Now we have cochlear implants, knuckle replacements and work is proceeding on developing a device which will enable people with damaged spinal cords to walk again. Everything seems possible!

Lens and retinal implants can work wonders when some healthy nerve cells remain in the eye. Soon (2010) there will be retinal implants that look promising for overcoming macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. However, there is no replacement when eyes are destroyed through accident or disease. The central (spinal cord, optic nerve) do not "grow back" the way nerves in a hand or knee do.

So, while cosmetic eyes can be placed in the eye socket, we as yet have no way to connect a replacement camera (which the eye is, essentially), to the brain, where the visual information is really interpreted. There is some new technology that can assist even those who have had no vision from birth to “see.” People who use the artificial vision system** called “vOICe” experience sight... through sound.

Developed by Dr. Peter B.L. Meijer, then a senior scientist at Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands, vOICe (the three middle letters standing for "Oh I See") works through a tiny camera attached to the bridge of a pair of glasses. What the camera sees is interpreted as a second-by-second series of soundscapes. The soundscapes are fed into earphones: objects on the left are “seen” through the left earphone, for example. Brightness becomes loudness. The software even includes a speaking colour-identifier.

People who use The vOICe say the experience of their brains decoding the sounds feels like seeing.*** In fact, brain research shows the part of the brain normally activated by sight is also the part of the brain galvanized in response to the soundscapes.

Best of all, vOICe is non-invasive. No surgery required: the user puts on a pair of glasses and totes a notebook PC in a backpack. The cost? Just the price of the notebook and the camera-earphone combo. If you have a JAVA enabled camera phone or PDA, you can download the software (not as advanced as the full vOICe system) for FREE (for non-commercial personal and academic use) and use that set up instead.

The vOICe technology is being explored and developed under the Open Innovation paradigm, together with partners around the world. * ** ***

Organizations: Philips Research Laboratories

Geographic location: Netherlands

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