Renewed sight for the blind

Renewed sight for the blind

Work is underway in a Civic building to develop bionic technology to restore people's vision, PHILLIP THOMSON writes

FOR A MAN trying to share the gift of sight, Chris McCarthy spends a lot of time at Spotlight in Queanbeyan.

He has bought metres upon metres of lace curtains as well as tape and boxes and he even knows the sales assistant - Rhonda - by name.

The homely gear he purchases has made a makeshift maze inside the shiny building where he works on Canberra's London Circuit.

It is the home of National Information Communication Technologies Australia. His aim, in a simple phrase, is to make the blind see.

While Fred Hollows became known for fixing and preventing trachomas, there is still no cure for the most common causes of blindness acquired through a person's life in many parts of the world.


These include retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration: profound blindness previously thought medically irreparable which is about to be remedied with a combination of technology and invasive surgery.

If successfully commercialised, it could be the biggest advancement since the cochlear implant for the profoundly deaf.

According to McCarthy, the makers of the cochlear implant - pioneers of sensory scientific breakthrough - had it easier in one obvious way when compared to the teams of people today trying to create a usable bionic eye.

''The eye is a challenging place to implant,'' says the 35-year-old whose office is cluttered with equipment and a robot he worked on earlier in his career as an artificial intelligence researcher.

''The cochlear is much more favourable. The eye moves, even if somebody's blind. [Eyes are] full of fluid. Surgeons have described the retina itself as being like tissue paper, it tears very easily.''

A chip about the size of a watch battery inserted into the retina will need to last 20 years.

Images of the world in front of the wearer will be beamed into the chip from a camera worn on a set of glasses, allowing the first users of the Australian bionic eye to perceive light and some shapes, if the preliminary tests are anything to go by.

In McCarthy's office is a crude machine which in many ways best explains how the bionic eye is supposed to work.

The machine is a skateboard helmet with a camera attached. It has been used in tests involving people who can see. The test pilots wear glasses which show the wearer rough outlines of what is in front of them - the same sorts of crude images people with the first bionic eye implants will see - while their actual sight is blinded by a hood.

McCarthy and his fellow computer vision experts in Canberra can change the images the test pilots see, focusing more on depth of field, for example.

The ''test pilots'' wear the helmet while navigating a maze constructed inside the NICTA offices. The maze is partly made from lace curtains.

The lace is used to provide texture which the bionic eye can pick up and convert into depth of field.

Apparently a lack of texture is only a problem in this test environment. Most of the real world is full of texture.

One of the biggest advantages of the bionic eye is the ability to see overhead objects. Until now, canes and dogs have mostly allowed the blind to focus on what is on the ground in front of them.

It has been reported the technology will cost more than $60,000 per patient - slightly more than the cochlear implant - mostly due to the cost of post-surgery treatment, and helping people make sense of the images they are seeing.

The bionic eye research project stems from Kevin Rudd's 2020 conference. A sum of $42 million was allocated to a consortium of researchers: the Bionics Institute, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, the University of Melbourne, the University of NSW and NICTA.

Their money runs out at the end of 2013. Following that, the research consortium hopes for either more government funds or enough private investment to continue or for philanthropists to take some interest. Or a combination of all three.

Melburnian Joan Smith, 68, has been completely blind for a few years now.

In her 30s she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, meaning over the following decades her sight gradually narrowed until everything went black.

''I can only see a very very bright light,'' the grandmother from Mentone says.

She has taken part in some preliminary testing which, depending on whether she is suitable and if she wants to go through with it, could mean she is one of the six people chosen to test the first eye implants.

For her the research is important. Not because she believes technology will ever allow her to see like she once did, but because two of her grandchildren, aged 17 and 14, have been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.

Her daughter also had the affliction, but died from another medical condition before she went blind.

''I was devastated to know it had been passed on in the family,'' Smith says.

To her, the bionic eye is the most positive medical advancement for sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa.

She explains, jokingly, she would never have volunteered for the treatment she once heard of which involved 75 bee stings.

''I think the chances of the bionic eye succeeding are very good. I'm very excited about it … obviously the first one isn't going to be perfect.''

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