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Artificial Retinas Set Their Sights on Star Trek‘s VISOR

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Contrary to popular belief, the blind really can lead the blind — and maybe everyone else as well. An ambitious research project has enabled visually-impaired subjects in the U.S., Europe and Mexico to regain some of their sight using an innovative device called an artificial retina. Might this mean the end of blind people developing those extra-keen auxiliary senses, like Daredevil’s ultra-accurate hearing? Perhaps, but it could also herald a new era of super-sensory devices like Geordi La Forge’s VISOR on Star Trek.

Here’s how it works: A study participant wears glasses containing a tiny camera, along with a video processor strapped to his waist. Images from the camera are analyzed by the processor and converted into configurations of light and dark. That information is then transmitted to a sheet of electrodes surgically implanted into the patient’s eye, and the visual signal travels from there to his brain via the optic nerve. So far, the improvements are limited to light and motion detection, and the ability to differentiate between objects. (You’ll still need 20/20 if you need to, say, eject a warp core.) But as the technology improves, researchers — led by James D. Weiland and Mark S. Humayun of USC — expect that reading, writing and facial recognition will be possible.

It’s “a very crude image,” says Jessy D. Dorn of Second Sight Medical Products, the device’s manufacturer, and doesn’t have nearly the capabilities of Star Trek‘s VISOR, which can detect infrared light and radio waves. Then again, it probably won’t cause headaches like those that plagued the Enterprise’s chief engineer (who by Star Trek: First Contact had opted for optical implants himself).

All of this is not to say that blindness is always a negative. Would the beautiful blind bimbo Claire have fallen for the lumpy, goopy Toxic Avenger if her first impression of him had been visual? There’s a reason The Dating Game kept the bachelors behind a screen.

No matter. The recipients of microelectronic implants are probably not asking themselves such questions; they’re just grateful for the opportunity to see again. One study participant was very pleased with the results of her prosthesis: “I can see my hand when I’m writing. At Little League games, I can see where the catcher, batter and umpire are.” Shawn Kelly, an MIT researcher, notes that “Anything that could help them see a little better and let them identify objects and move around a room would be an enormous help.” Geordi may secretly long for human sight, but you never hear him complaining about having to walk around with a hair clip over his eyes all day.

To date, this electronic visual prosthesis has been used on people with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that destroys the eye’s photoreceptor cells, but it’s expected to also be useful in treating age-related macular degeneration, which damages the retina. Other causes of blindness — damaged corneas, for instance — require other cures. In osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis surgery (just sound it out), a new cornea is constructed using the root from a patient’s own tooth, usually the canine. That’s right, people are actually giving their eyeteeth to regain their sight. Not that the newly toothless should fret — Dr. Crusher is sure to replicate you a killer set of dentures in no time.

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