Virtual light -
August 14, 2002 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Virtual light - "...the wires plug into Patient Alpha's head like a pair of headphones plug into a stereo. The actual connection is metallic and circular, like a common washer. So seamless is the integration that the skin appears to simply stop being skin and start being steel." Cameras that jack into a blind man's brain, allowing him to 'see' may soon be here.
posted by GriffX (23 comments total)
Great link, GriffX. Thank you. Lately, it seems as though stories that leave you with a sense of hope and wonderment have become quite rare.
posted by mathis23 at 3:19 PM on August 14, 2002

That's incredible! Thanks for pointing this out.
posted by me3dia at 3:30 PM on August 14, 2002

Wow. I didn't expect to hear anything about them being that far ahead with that research. That's really astounding!
posted by Stuart_R at 3:33 PM on August 14, 2002

Too cool.
posted by MattD at 3:45 PM on August 14, 2002

Wow. I didn't expect to hear anything about them being that far ahead with that research. That's really astounding!

Same here. I always thought this was at a very theoretical stage. Thanks, GriffX!
posted by vacapinta at 4:04 PM on August 14, 2002

Incredible story, thanks GriffX. For that kind of dough, if they throw in a pair of silicon boobs and a rubber dress I'll do it. I can finally be Trinity.
posted by ouke at 4:21 PM on August 14, 2002

What a great article.
It's hard to believe, really.
posted by Espoo2 at 4:22 PM on August 14, 2002

Wow. Jacks into the brain. That has always seemed one of the least plausible bits of sci-fi, yet here it is.

I can't help but wonder what else the technology could be used for once it's mature.
posted by frykitty at 5:12 PM on August 14, 2002

Its amazing, now I'm just wondering if a "blind culture" is going to shun these people, like the "deaf culture" does to people who try to change themselves.

Its mentioned in one line in the article, but really would like to hear about the patients impressions of hooking it up to other sources, like a computer monitor or devices that sense a much wider range of wavelengths.
posted by Iax at 5:48 PM on August 14, 2002

Its amazing, now I'm just wondering if a "blind culture" is going to shun these people, like the "deaf culture" does to people who try to change themselves.

Is there a "blind culture" movement? Googling around, I found this page, which is more of a call for blind culture than a celebration of one currently in existence, and this one here, which is mostly against stereotypes of blind people as sad, incompetent sorts. That about took care of it, except for some stuff on deaf-blind culture (a different situation).

In any event: this is very interesting technology indeed.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:40 PM on August 14, 2002

This pretty amazing, yet sort of scary at the same time.

Can you imagine being able to twist a knob on your sunglasses (or the side of your head, for that matter) and zoom in on a subject at a great distance? Or to have night vision built into your head?

Resistance is futile.
posted by hawkman at 7:14 PM on August 14, 2002

Hmm. Well, sign language seems to be a major factor in the creation of a deaf culture, whereas blind people can participate in conversation with sighted people just fine. There have been strides -- the state school for the visually handicapped in my hometown changed its curriculum around 15 years back to a more adaptive, integrated one, and indeed has seen its enrollment drop as more local districts have implemented mainstreaming programs.
posted by dhartung at 7:15 PM on August 14, 2002

As miraculous as this may seem, it's not new.

I will always remember the amazement I felt when I saw some of these experiments on an old TV show about modern science - this will have been about 16 or 17 years ago, and the footage they were showing was black and white. It was a similar setup - a blind-from-birth patient had a thick clump of wires in the side of his head, and a TV screen was showing what he saw - a basic black and white image.

Incredible stuff.
posted by SiW at 7:31 PM on August 14, 2002

speaking as someone who is visually impared (i have virtually no use of my right eye), I'm looking forward to seeing this technology being perfected and used.

i've never had any depth perception, so sports have always been pretty difficult for me, and i'm just one errant particle away from blindness...

i say bring it on. and if that makes me a scary borg, well, make it so, number one.
posted by keswick at 8:45 PM on August 14, 2002

wow. need i say more?
posted by sixtwenty3dc at 8:57 PM on August 14, 2002

The really good part of this Wired Magazine article is where the writer contrasts Normann's intracortical stimulating (and recording) electrode array design and its potentials to Dobelle's visual cortical surface stimulation.

It's highly likely that intracortical arrays will be needed for high resolution motor prosthesis and also sensory substitution. The development of such arrays is now in progress, of course mostly in research studies using awake animals, monkeys, rats, sometimes cats too.
We also learn a lot from Parkinson patients who have chronically implanted stimulating electrodes (in their basal ganglia or subthalamic nuclei) to alleviate their movement disorder symptoms.

It's not obvious whether it was a good idea to go ahead and do the visual prosthesis implant surgeries in Portugal. The problem with controversial studies is also that sometimes some of the results are magnified. Although I need to admit, that the writer describes the problems in a fairly realistic way in this Wired Magazine article (e.g. the potential to cause epileptic seizures with high stimulus currents). Still, an invited writer from Wired Magazine may not be the best person to report the results of a single patient case study (although they mention a conference presentation - that was also accompanied by a Press Release, by the way).

I know, generally you are not supposed to advertise your own site but we specifically collected links, articles, opinions, references to conferences, possibilities of getting research grants and generally science and technology related advice. So please visit us in cyberspace if you are interested in more details of such and related studies.

Neuroprosthesis News
posted by neu at 9:09 PM on August 14, 2002

I know, generally you are not supposed to advertise your own site but ...

Great site. Thanks! Relevant and valuable self-links like that are always appropriate.
posted by vacapinta at 10:12 PM on August 14, 2002

My money is actually on growing new retinas from precursor stem cells. Most blindness results from retinal problems later in life and most of those problems result in the deaths of rods and cones.

Transplanting a whole eye would be nice but reconnecting the optic nerve isn't possible anymore than reconnecting a severed spinal cord is.

Cranial prostheses like the ones described in the article require risky surgery on the brain. The article mentions that operating on a blind eye is safer than operating on a healthy brain. The area of the brain the implants would be placed on or in, the primary visual cortex, has a larger surface area then the retina and so a larger electrode would be needed along with a connection outside the head, which while seems cool when William Gibson writes about it, is really a pain in the neck.

The main advantage of going in at the retina is that the surviving neurons can still do much of the work themselves. By bypassing the retina you loose about 4 synapses out of 20 total of processing. The less cells you have to bypass, the more work your software has to do. And considering we still have no idea how the retina works, it's best that the prostheses do as little as possible.

Putting chips on the retina is problematic. They have to be powered by lasers and solar cells or some other complicated setup. The eye is also not a happy place for semiconductors. Attachment is also a problem.

ideally you could replace just the rods and cones with implanted stem cells stimulated to differentiate into functional photoreceptors and instruct the surviving cells to plug in but this is some years away.
posted by euphorb at 11:01 PM on August 14, 2002

Transplanting a whole eye would be nice but reconnecting the optic nerve isn't possible anymore than reconnecting a severed spinal cord is.

posted by Neale at 11:43 PM on August 14, 2002

In fact, since this is only a simple camera we're talking about, one could imagine the addition of any number of superhuman optical features: night vision, X-ray vision, microscopic focus, long-range zoom. Forget the camera even; there's no reason you couldn't jack directly into the Net.

WOW! I want in!
posted by Modem Ovary at 12:28 AM on August 15, 2002

Ah... thanks for that link. Now I can use it to SMACK all those folks who laughed at me when I said we would probably have some sort of direct virtual interface by 2010.

And, er... I want in too...
posted by FilmMaker at 2:28 AM on August 15, 2002

Retinal chip can be an option only when the optic nerve is intact. Unfortunately if the eye goes blind for various reasons, the nerve itself often degenerates.
Even cochlear implants are useful only when the nerve is intact and that is not always the case. Doctors already started experimenting with brainstem implants for restoring hearing also, quite successfully (but only when cochlear implants could not be used).
Interestingly enough, vision is mapped so differently in the brain, that researchers plan to use the cortex for restoration instead of deep brain areas. On the other hand, they don't plan to use the auditory cortex to restore hearing (but it is thoroughly explored in animal experiments).
There won't be a single method that is better than others. Different subjects will need different solutions.

Now as far as Jacking In goes for your EveryMan (and Every Woman of course), that's an entirely different story ...
posted by neu at 5:01 AM on August 15, 2002

As this Wired Magazine article was also discussed on SlashDot, we posted the following comment there:

Feel free to forward the note to your friends - this issue also chimes in well with Megnut's ideas about paying for blogging (although this is just an early test whether such an approach would be feasible at all if you were trying to recruit interested and experienced "outsiders" in a sense).
You can find the related discussion on Blogroots

It seems that this topics is very interesting for Slashdot readers, as related articles are often discussed here.

The answers to some of the questions that were raised here can be found on our pages, where we collected links to similar science and technology articles.

Please visit Neuroprosthesis News

Also, we would like to offer a $100 prize for the most thoughtful two-page article, commentary/criticism of either this Wired article alone, or a broader view of the current state of this science/technology field. Also please let us know in this thread whether you find this a fair compensation. We will then post the best on our site, with due references to the writer (unless s/he would like to remain anonymous). You keep the copyright permissions. Please send submissions to within a 15 day time frame. The results will be evaluated after that, and announced on September 15 on our site (unless we have 100,000 submissions and will have to beg for patience and time).

posted by neu at 6:32 AM on August 15, 2002

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