Researchers in Israel are working on a special kind of contact lens that they say will could enable the blind to see. The contact lens would use the eye’s tactile sensors to give blind people the ability to “feel” shapes with their eyes, much in the same way their fingers feel Braille. The bionic contact lens would have the ability to press images onto the surface of the eye. Once the images are pressed upon the eye, the brain could decipher through touch what the contact lens wearer is looking at.
The system sends an image taken by a camera to the lens, which interprets the image into a tactile sensation that can be interpreted visually. While the process sounds complicated, it’s as simple as the lens interpreting the visual world into Braille-like code, which is transmitted to the brain via electrical impulses. From there, the brain translates the code into whatever the blind individual is ‘seeing’.
The lens was invented by Israeli researcher Professor Zeev Zalesky, an engineering faculty member at Bar-llan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. According to Zalesky, there are 600 times more sensors in the cornea than in the fingertips, which are typically used to touch and read Braille. Since there are so many tactile sensors in the eyes, blind individuals can sense and ‘feel’ an image at an extremely high resolution, enabling them to really see with their eyes.
This approach differs from artificial and 3D printed eye cells in that artificial retinas use compact cameras connected with electrodes to directly send visuals to the nerves of the eyes. Unfortunately, the connection lasts for just a few years and can’t be used on individuals who were born without a developed visual cortex. Additionally, these methods are highly invasive and produce low-resolution images of just a few pixels.
Although it’s still in its prototype stage, the lens could go beyond helping blind individuals read. Researchers predict that the product could have other humanitarian and medical applications, including helping law enforcement see in complete darkness when used in conjunction with an infrared camera. The contact lens is completely different than the “Google Glass for the Blind” that’s being developed by another Israeli researcher; although, both say their products can work together.
Researchers claim they’ve had some success with initial trials and that test subjects were able to identify objects after some practice. Currently, the researchers are hoping for a $1-2 million investment so a full system and manufacturing process could be implemented. If funding is secured, a beta version could be ready within two to three years.