Imagine telling your grandma in 2003 that within a decade we'd invent a wearable video camera that wirelessly transmits images to your eyeball, effectively allowing the blind to see. She would've laughed you out the door! And then she would've asked you to read the TV Guide listings with your young eyes.
Grandma's not laughing now. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration approved a device that does indeed use a video camera attached to a pair of Oakley-esque glasses that communicate with electrodes implanted in the retina. Very clumsily named the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System — we would've called them Jesus Glasses — these spectacles are specifically designed for people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, hereditary disease that causes cells in the retina to breakdown over time, eventually causing blindness. "It's like looking down a tunnel that gradually narrows until it disappears entirely," says Dr. Robert Greenberg, CEO and founder of Second Sight, the company that makes the device. "What we're doing is reopening the window that had closed on them." Those patients won't be able to fly a fighter jet, but they will be able to distinguish light from dark.
Believe it or not, the Argus II is hardly the most advanced bionic eye on the market. Once you venture into the realm of the experimental, places the FDA simply does not go, you'll find a sensational spectrum of inventions that are helping people see. It's, well, eye-opening. One device that's being tested in the United Kingdom is a microchip that you actually implant in the eye to stimulate the optical nerve. It works works like a cell phone camera except instead of sending the visual information to Instagram (or wherever) it sends it to your brain. Like the Argus II, the resultant image is largely shades of black and white, but it's better than nothing.
Then there's the cyberpunk end of the bionic eye spectrum. This guy lost an eye in a shooting accident and then had a camera installed in its place, basically for the fun of it. It's not exactly a cure for blindness, but it is pretty mind-boggling:
The Argus II is already available in Europe and will go on sale in the United States later this year. And take it from Mark Humayun, a medical professor at the University of Southern California who helped develop the device, this is only the beginning. He says, "The fact that many patients can use the Argus implant in their activities of daily living such as recognizing large letters, locating the position of objects, and more, has been beyond our wildest dreams, yet the promise to the patients is real and we expect it only to improve over time."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.