Night Vision Without the Goggles

The tantalizing promise—and practical pitfalls—of eyedrops that let a person see in the dark.

Mike Blake / Reuters

In March, Gabriel Licina pinned his eyes open and had his friend, Jeffrey Tibbetts, place several drops of a carefully calibrated liquid into his eyes. After a few minutes, to let the drops settle in, they headed outside to a dark field. The drops contained a small amount of a chemical called Chlorin e6, or ce6. The chemical has been used in cancer treatment for years, but that’s not why Licina put it in his eyes. Licina and his team were using it for another property: ce6 makes people’s eyes more sensitive to red light. They had used it to make night-vision drops.

Out in the field, Licina says it wasn’t a dramatic effect. “I wasn’t like ‘Oh my gosh I’m Riddick!’” he told me, referencing the titular protagonist of the science-fiction film with a laugh. “It was more like, ‘Oh hey look I can see this thing that I didn’t see previously. Why is everybody tripping, can’t you look at that thing right there?’” Which was both surprising and not, says Licina. “This is something that we’ve noticed in multiple projects now, it’s like, there’s a huge difference between what you want it to be and actual biological reality.”

Licina and Tibbetts once made up a group called Science for the Masses. Licina has worked in a handful of molecular biology labs, and Tibbetts is a registered nurse. The two have since gone their separate ways, but they came upon the ce6 idea while they were working on another way of getting night vision that involved using vitamin A2. After about six months of reading papers and fiddling with their formula, they were ready to try out the ce6 solution.

You might have heard about this story. Licina says he never expected the huge amount of press the project got. “We had no idea it was going to happen. One person put one picture of me with lenses on on their Facebook page, and then 800 phone calls and more emails than I want to consider show up,” he says.

Some of the coverage was frustrating. Several stories suggested that Licina had injected something into his eyes (he didn’t) and that they had stumbled across an amazing breakthrough (they hadn’t). “It was a little distressing to see first-hand how easy it is for media to take a project and distort it,” he says. “The first article used the word injection. So the next 15 all had the word injection.” He laughed. “It’s a fancy eyedropper.”

What Licina and Tibbets had done wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. They had pieced together bits and pieces of information from papers, and offered themselves up as guinea pigs for the experiment. But the idea that any one of us could suddenly see at night with just a few eye drops is a pretty seductive one. And the media loved it.

But what Licina and Tibbets’ project showed was more than just the effectiveness of a ce6 solution. It also showed how biohacking works, and where it all falls apart.

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The science behind the ce6 formula was first discovered by a scientist named Ilyas Washington, who is now an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Columbia University. In 2007, he published a paper that looked at “Chlorophyll derivatives as visual pigments for super vision in the red.” Essentially, Washington wanted to see if he could make the protein in our eyes—one that normally responds to green light—respond to red light instead. This is how deep-sea fish see in the dark: Their eyes are tuned to red light, rather than green.

In 2007, Washington used a ce6 formula on mice to see if he could get their eyes to respond to red light. It worked, but after that, Washington never did much more on the subject. “It’s something that my group has been planning, and we just haven’t gotten back to it,” he told Sarah Zhang at Gizmodo. (He also told Zhang that he had tried the drops on himself at the time, but never reported the results.)

Since Licina and Tibbets revived the idea, and did their now-famous experiment, a handful of other groups have tried a similar formula. Licina heard from a few biohackers on a forum who went out stargazing, and said it was subtle, but neat.

But Licina says that like with most biohacking projects, that’s pretty much where it stops. “I mean, that’s the thing, what would the next step be?” he asks. “Finding more test subjects? Going that next step and getting 20 people and being able to test that, the legal ramifications and the money required is outrageous,” he says. They’re not equipped to do a clinical trial, or to even work through the steps required to get to that stage.

This is the challenge with nearly every biohacking project. Hackers can come up with great ideas, can combine what they know and work together to show a great proof of concept. RFID chips, biosensors, and night-vision drops can all work nicely on one or two people. But most biohackers don’t have the funding or the know-how to move beyond that. Clinical trials take years and millions of dollars to execute. Most doctors won’t touch biohacking for fear of lawsuits. So many projects linger and die even after they show promise.

In the case of night vision, it’s not even clear that eye drops are really the best way to deliver night vision to people. Licina laughs when he tells me about the military contractors who got in touch with them. He thinks they were simply double checking that they hadn’t stumbled upon something incredible. “I can’t imagine that they’d actually be excited about this. The stuff that they have is so amazing,” Licina says. The military already has highly specialized night-vision goggles that can also feed in all sorts of other information like location, and thermal data. (And he wasn’t all that interested in working with them the government to begin with. Science for the Masses, true to its name, publishes all its work open source. “Working with people like that is the exact opposite of what I’m interested in.”)

But there was one group that contacted Licina that he was actually intrigued by. “We got contacted by people from Boating Magazine,” he says. They were intrigued because the eye drops were something that wears off, that sailors could use at night without needing a big, expensive, and probably not waterproof headset. Licina likes that idea. “Now this, makes sense,” he says, “It’s a slight tweak to make life a little bit better. And that’s something cool. I do like it when life is better.”