‘Our solution can help blind people read letters, or help you orient yourself in three dimensions,’ says Prof. Zeev Zalevsky.
By Rivka Borochov This latest invention from Israel is something that will turn eyes and heads: Prof. Zeev Zalevsky from Bar-Ilan University has developed a bionic contact lens to help the blind see. Fitted and worn like a regular contact lens, this new invention is manufactured with electrodes, which get signals from a camera – either held in the hand or worn on one’s glasses. When a user looks or points the camera to an object –– a door, a person, a shop, letters on paper — the camera translates the image to a type of electronic Braille, and the contact lens “excites” the retina with tactile sensations. “It’s like reading Braille, not with your fingertips but with your eyes,” says Zalevsky. “We can encode an image with many more points than the Braille system and use these to stimulate the surface of the cornea.” Unlike Braille, which relies on positioning of six dots to convey information to a reader, Zalevsky’s invention can actually transmit images in high detail to those who are blind. How does it do this? The sensors in the cornea of the eye, he points out, are 600 times more sensitive to tactile stimulation than the fingertips. In fact, the corneas are the most sensitive areas in the human body to this kind of stimulation. This new technology, yet to be tested on human eyes, could open doors for those who cannot see. See by feeling your eyes “Our solution can help blind people read letters, or help you orient yourself in three dimensions. This means you could cross the road without getting run over by a car, from a functional point of view,” Zalevsky says. There are existing companies, such as Second Sight, that promise to create an artificial retina. But there are major problems with this approach, says Zalevsky. For one, the user can see only about 16 pixels. Compared to mega pixels of vision in a normal eye, current solutions don’t really offer more than a small beacon in the fog. The Israeli device promises tens of thousands of pixels. Also, current solutions do not work for people born blind. Since the visual cortex was never fully developed, the artificial retina has nothing to work with. On top of that, surgery to attach the system to the eyes is invasive, as electrodes must be connected to the nerves of the eye, and the connection needs to be renewed after a few years. Zalevsky’s tool, developed with researchers Prof. Michael Belkin and Yevgeny Beiderman from Israel, aims to solve these challenges, and do more –– like provide for night vision. When an infrared camera is connected to the transponder that delivers information to the contact lens, wearers could see in the dark, says Zalevsky. Two years until launch? The tech advance here is in the contact lens and the way it pairs wirelessly with any off-the-shelf digital camera to deliver images encoded in a special way. A US-based company prints the electrodes onto the lens, based on Zalevsky’s instructions. The components communicate one way from camera to lens, using radio frequency identification (RFID). To date, the bionic lens has been tested successfully on animals, who were able to see their way through obstacles in the dark. It has been tested also on the fingertips of healthy human volunteers. After a few minutes of learning how the tool delivers tactile information, wearers were able to sense and recognize simple images like a door, a window or a car. It can also be used to transmit letters of the alphabet, which perhaps one day might provide a more natural reading alternative to Braille. “The processing here is low in complexity,” says Zalevsky. “The processor card is in the camera itself and the algorithm is something simple. The solution can be paired with an iPhone so the user can point and project an image to the contact lens if they prefer not to wear the camera on their glasses.” The invention is waiting to pass clinical trials before it can be marketed. If Zalevsky reaches his investment goal (through the tech transfer company at Bar-Ilan University), the technology could be on the market and ready for sales in as few as two years. This is just one of a number of new technology advances from Israel for people with visual disabilities. Prof. Shy Shoham at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa is working on a retinal prosthesis, what he calls “Google Glass for the blind.” This attempts to artificially activate the original sense of vision. He says that his and Zalevsky’s research are complementary. A third Israeli company, Orcam, has come up with an image-processing and computer visual tool to help bring vision to people who are blind. Zalevsky is also currently working on a similar sort of device to help people with hearing impairments.