(TMU) – Will people with eyesight loss soon view the world through bionic vision? A new proof-of-concept biomimetic eye suggests the answer is ‘yes.’ Scientists and researchers say a new bionic eye innovation is in development that could not only restore vision but may actually surpass the optical sensitivity of biological eyesight.
The key, according to new research published in the journal Nature, is perovskite, a conductive, light-sensitive material commonly used in solar cells.
Researchers used perovskite to build tiny nanowire sensors occupying a curved aluminum oxide membrane, which collectively act as a 3-dimensional artificial retina. The nanowire sensors, several thousandths of a millimeter in length, simulate the photoreceptor cells found in organic human eyeballs.
Study co-author Zhiyong Fan says that for this proof-of-concept phase, the research team tested the visual information gathered from the bionic eye by using wires to replicate the brain’s visual cortex and then uploading that data to a computer.
Because of the extreme sensitivity of the nanowires, the bionic eye is quicker to react to light (processing 800-nanometer wavelengths) than an actual human eye. Researchers believe it is likely to also be more effective at image resolution and capable of night-vision.
According to Fan, the biomimetic eye will eventually surpass the range of vision of an average biological human eye:
“One more functional difference is that [the] human eye can only see optical wavelength range from 400 to 700 nm [nanometers]. However our current artificial eye can already respond to 200 nm ~ 800 nm wavelength range. In the future, if we choose to use a narrow bandgap semiconductor as photosensing material to build our artificial retina, then infrared light will be visible to the artificial eye.”
Incredibly, Fan added, “A human user of the artificial eye will gain night vision capability.”
The research team included scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, UC Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Human eyes operate like cameras, utilizing a single lens that affords us visual abilities 100 times better than insects, whose eyesight involves a compound of many tiny lenses translating light. Researchers sought to mimic this natural formula, even simulating the vitreous humor in a biological human eye with a “gel-like ionic liquid” that conducts energy into the artificial retina.
“Biological eyes are arguably the most important sensing organ for most of the animals on this planet. In fact, our brains acquire more than 80 percent of information about our surroundings via our eyes,” the researchers write in their paper.
“Particularly, the domed shape of the retina has the merit of reducing the complexity of optical systems by directly compensating the aberration from the curved focal plane. Mimicking human eyes, artificial vision systems are just as essential in autonomous technologies such as robotics.”
Interfacing with the human visual system still presents a challenge to this technology. Nevertheless, some scientists believe we’re no more than 10 years away from deploying bionic eyes. Combined with Elon Musk’s “neural lace” brain-AI merging technology, which he claims is only 4-5 years off, the 2030s could be a wild decade.