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Uni preps facility to build bionic eye chips

A fab vision for smartphones to help implants

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The University of NSW (UNSW) is trumpeting an advance in its contribution to Australia’s “bionic eye” project, opening a fabrication facility to underpin the development effort.

Back in late 2009, the Australian government kicked off the project with $AU42 million in funding to support the research by UNSW, the University of Melbourne, the Bionic Ear Institute, the Centre for Eye Research, and National ICT Australia (NICTA).

First fruits of the research came last year, with both UNSW and NICTA revealing chip designs. UNSW has focused on a wide view device, while NICTA’s efforts have been directed towards getting better resolution in implantable devices.

The wide-view device is now to be fabricated at UNSW, in a new $AU2.5 million fabrication facility, with patient tests planned for next year.

UNSW’s wide-view chip has 98 electrodes designed to stimulate the retina. The chip gets its signals from a camera, which sends images to a signal processing unit external to the body. These signals are relayed to the chip, implanted in a space behind the eye known as the “suprachoroidal space”.

The chip then stimulates the retina, which sends imposes as normal via the optic nerve.

This division of labour between internal and external devices is partly to reduce the size of the implant, but also to help manage the challenge of creating devices that are clinically suitable for implantation.

As UNSW notes, image processing could be performed by a specialist device, or in a smartphone app.

At this stage of development, the bionic eye won’t restore 20:20 vision to a patient. The first milestone, in terms of a successful implant, will be giving patients sufficient vision to identify light from dark, and to allow them to navigate around large objects. ®

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