Superhuman sight: Scientists develop 3D prosthetic eye better than real thing

HONG KONG — It may sound like science fiction, but it’s real science at its finest. An international team of scientists has created a 3D artificial eye that looks human-like — and actually functions better than a human eye or any other bionic creation.

This is a huge breakthrough in the development of human-like prosthetics. Current prosthetic eyes do not provide much clarity. They usually require special sunglasses and a group of external wires to produce a 2D image that’s of poor quality. Development of the technology was led by scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

World's First 3D Artificial Eye
An international team led by HKUST scientists has developed the world’s first 3D artificial eye with capabilities better than existing bionic eyes and in some cases, even exceed those of the human eyes, bringing vision to humanoid robots and new hope to patients with visual impairment. (Image credit: HKUST)

“I have always been a big fan of science fiction, and I believe many technologies featured in stories such as those of intergalactic travel, will one day become reality. However, regardless of image resolution, angle of views or user-friendliness, the current bionic eyes are still of no match to their natural human counterpart,” says professor Fan Zhiyong, of the university’s Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, in a media release. “A new technology to address these problems is in urgent need, and it gives me a strong motivation to start this unconventional project.”

Fan spent nine years working on the project.

‘Electrochemical Eye’

Not only does the new prosthetic resemble a human eyeball, it provides clearer images than one. Dubbed the “Electrochemical Eye,” it will even be capable of performing superhuman functions like detecting infrared light and radiation. The name is derived from an electrochemical process that solar cells use. Each nanowire and photo sensor in the retina of the artificial eye functions like a miniature solar cell.

Thus, scientists chose the name “Electrochemical Eye” since it takes advantage of this electrochemical process to function.

The 3D artificial retina is the critical component that gives the prosthetic this incredible functionality. The artificial retina is made of a bundle of nanowire light sensors — really tiny light receptors that function like the photoreceptors of the human eye. The research team demonstrated the capabilities of this retina and prosthetic eye by connecting the bundle of nanowires to artificial nerves that connect to the computer. This allows the scientists to see what the prosthetic eye “sees” by displaying the image on the computer screen.

Prosthetic eye comes with super-human advantage

So what exactly makes the prosthetic eye better than the real thing? First, our eyes have blind spots where the optic nerves come through the retina to connect to photoreceptors. In the prosthetic retina the optic nerves are scattered across the retina instead of crossing it at a single point. In other words, there is no blind spot.

The other major feature of the Electrochemical Eye is that the nanowires are capable of receiving more light signals than the photoreceptors of the human eye. This may give the prosthetic the ability to receive higher-resolution images than the human eye, and quite possibly the ability to see in the dark.

Not ready for real life…yet

The team of scientists hope to use their prosthetic to restore vision to visually impaired patients. Theoretically, the nanowire light sensors of the artificial retina can be attached directly to a patient’s optic nerves.

It will take some time until the prosthetic is approved for human use.

“In the next step, we plan to further improve the performance, stability and biocompatibility of our device,” says Fan. “For prosthesis application, we look forward to collaborating with medical research experts who have the relevant expertise on optometry and ocular prosthesis.”

The study is published in Nature.

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