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MIT builds seeing machine for the blind

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A researcher at MIT has developed a working prototype of a machine that will help legally blind people to see, Reuters reports.

The inventor, Senior Fellow Elizabeth Goldring, says that the device will help people to read, to see pictures of friends and study other useful documents, such as the layout of buildings.

The prototype, which MIT says will cost around $4000 to manufacture, plugs into a PC and uses light emitting diodes to project images directly onto the retina.

Traditional sight aids work by projecting a video image onto a pair of goggles or onto a video screen. "The advantage of this kind of display is there's no extraneous stuff in your peripheral vision that gets in the way," Goldring, told the Reuters news agency.

The so-called seeing machine was inspired by a scanning laser ophthalmoscope, a $100,000 medical device used to examine the eye. The technology involved in the ophthalmoscope is too expensive to make a device suitable for personal use, so Goldring and her research team spent a decade working on ways to reduce the cost.

The device is a still a long way from being a Geordi La Forge-style visor. At 12 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches, even the generous would not describe it as wearable, and it couldn't be used to navigate an unfamiliar space. But as long as the user has some living retinal cells, he or she should be able to use the machine to see a clear colour image, such as the layout of a room they plan to visit.

Tests on 10 legally blind volunteers found that most could see images and read words when using the device. Goldring now plans to develop a commercial version. ®

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