Scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have created an unique remote-controlled robot that is able to simulate the “visual” experience of a blind person who has been implanted with a visual prosthesis, such as an artificial retina. An artificial retina consists of a silicon chip studded with a varying number of electrodes that directly stimulate retinal nerve cells. It is hoped that this approach may one day give blind persons the freedom of independent mobility.
The robot is called CYCLOPS and is the first such device to emulate what the blind can see with an implant. Its development and potential uses are described in a paper recently published online in the journal Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine.
An artificial retina, also known as a retinal prosthesis, may use either an internal or external miniature camera to capture images. The captured images then are processed and passed along to the implanted silicon chip’s electrode array. The chip directly stimulates the eye’s functional retinal ganglion cells, which carry the image information to the vision centers in the brain. CYCLOPS’s camera is gimballed, which means it can emulate left-to-right and up-and-down head movements. The input from the camera runs through the onboard computing platform, which does real-time image processing. For now, however, the platform itself is moved around remotely, via a joystick.
Now researchers wants to test and see how it can help blind people. Among the things they hope to learn from testing is how to enhance a workplace or living environment to make it more accessible to a blind person with a particular vision implant. If CYCLOPS can use computer-enhanced images from a 50-pixel array to make its way safely through a room with a chair in one corner, a sofa along the wall, and a coffee table in the middle, then there is a good chance that a blind person with a 50-pixel retinal prosthesis would be able to do the same.