Bionic eye implant will become available in the US in coming weeks

The Argus II retinal implant is like a cochlear implant for the blind. It looks like computing goggles such as Google Glass, but it sends the images the eyeglass-mounted visual processing unit detects to a tiny electrode array that’s been implanted in the user’s retina. Electrical stimulation sends visual information up the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the user’s brain, allowing him or her to see.
You could call it a bionic eye, and average Americans will gain access to it before the end of 2013. The device, made by California-based Second Sight with support from the Department of Energy, will in the coming weeks become medically available in the United States for patients blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, a degenerative eye disease that affects 1 in 4,000 Americans.
In a recent study on eight people with end-stage RP, those using the implant were twice as likely to be able to correctly identify photos of objects with their outlines enhanced as those who received a scrambled signal from the implant. Without the assistance of the enhanced outlines, patients using the implants successfully identified objects in photos 25 percent more often than those in the positive control group.
The Argus II was approved in the United States as a humanitarian device, a status that certifies it as safe and likely to help. While standard approval would have required clinical trials on 300 patients, that status required just 30 test subjects. With an outlay of $1 million per patient, the more limited trials were the only viable decision, Brian Mech, Second Sight’s vice president for business development, told Singularity Hub.
Second Sight and its government partners are working toward a device that would allow patients to see well enough to recognize faces — and, potentially, as the technology improves, better even than people with 20/20 vision. Increased accuracy requires more electrodes in the implant, and the challenge is in keeping it tiny.
The Argus II implant includes 60 electrodes, but the planned Argus III will likely include 240. The more powerful implant won’t be approved and available to patients for several years, according to Mech.