World-first 3D bionic eye could enable superhuman sight, night vision

The human eye is an incredibly complex piece of equipment, so it’s no wonder that we’ve had a hard time reverse engineering it. Now, researchers have unveiled the world’s first 3D artificial eye, which can not only outperform other devices but has the potential to see better than the real thing.

Bionic eyes are emerging as a way to restore vision to people who have lost their sight, and possibly even those that never had it to begin with. Currently the most advanced versions are those from companies like Bionic Vision Australia and Second Sight, which have both already been implanted into patients.

Both of these devices take the same basic form, starting with a pair of glasses with a camera in the center. The data from that is processed by a small unit worn outside the body, then sent to an implant on the user’s retina. From there, the signals are transmitted to the visual centers of the brain. And they work. Users have reported being able to see flashes of light again, for the first time in years.

Unfortunately, this vision isn’t clear enough for them to rely on to navigate the world, and other studies have shown that these kinds of bionic eyes might produce streaky images and are too slow to capture fast movements.

But this new device could herald a huge improvement. A team led by scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has developed what they call the Electrochemical Eye (EC-Eye).

Rather than using a two-dimensional image sensor like a camera, the EC-Eye is modeled after a real retina with a concave curve. This surface is studded with an array of tiny light sensors designed to mimic the photoreceptors on a human retina. These sensors are then attached to a bundle of wires made of liquid metal, which act as the optic nerve.

The team tested the EC-Eye and showed that it can already capture images relatively clearly. It was set up in front of a computer screen displaying large individual letters, and it was able to display them clearly enough to be read.

Although it’s a huge improvement over existing bionic eye designs, the EC-Eye’s vision still falls far short of a natural human eye. But, the team says, this might not be the case forever. The technology has the potential to outshine the real thing, by using a denser array of sensors and attaching each sensor to an individual nanowire. The team even says that using other materials in different parts of the EC-Eye could bestow users with higher sensitivity to infrared – essentially, night vision.