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Artificial Eye Produces Vision

January 17, 2000

With camera wired to brain, blind man 'sees' objects.
Artificial eye produces vision

By Malcolm Ritter

NEW YORK - A blind man can read large letters and navigate
around big objects by using a tiny camera wired directly to
his brain, the first artificial eye to provide useful vision,
a researcher reports.

The 62-year-old man does not see an image. He perceives up to
100 specks of light that appear and disappear, like stars that
come and go behind passing clouds, as his field of vision

But as he showed a reporter last week, that is enough to let
him find a mannequin in a room, walk to a black stocking cap
hanging on a white wall, and then return to the mannequin to
plop the cap on its head. He also can recognize a 2-inch-tall
letter from five feet away, said researcher William Dobelle.

"He can do remarkably well" with the limited visual signal,
said Dobelle, who is developing the artificial vision system.

The man, who asked to be identified only as Jerry, has been
blind since the age of 36. He volunteered for the study and
got the brain implant in 1978; scientists have been working
since then to improve the software.

Dobelle is chairman of the Dobelle Institute, a medical device
company in New York. He describes the device and its
performance in this month's issue of the ASAIO Journal, a
publication of the American Society of Artificial Internal

Richard Normann, who studies artificial vision at the
University of Utah, said he was encouraged by how much Jerry
could do. He said Dobelle's report suggested that, someday,
even limited signals to the brain will let blind people do
relatively complicated visual tasks.

It's the first demonstration of useful artificial vision, he
said, but he stressed the device was "a very limited
navigational aid, and it's a far cry from the visual
experience that normal people enjoy."

To use the device, Jerry wears sunglasses with a tiny pinhole
camera mounted on one lens and an ultrasonic range finder on
the other. Both devices communicate with a small computer
carried on his hip, which highlights the edges between light
and dark areas in the camera image. It then tells an adjacent
computer to send appropriate signals to an array of small
electrodes on the surface of Jerry's brain, through wires
entering his skull behind his right ear.

The electrodes stimulate certain brain cells, making Jerry
perceive the specks of light. The shifting patterns as Jerry
scans across a scene tells him where light areas meet dark
ones, letting him find the black cap on the white wall, for

The device provides a sort of tunnel vision, reading an area
about the size of a card 2 inches wide and 8 inches tall, held
at arm's length.

Jerry uses the device only two or three days a week at
Dobelle's lab, as researchers tinker with it. One question is
how best to provide depth perception, using signals from the
range finder. During the demonstration, Jerry had to walk
cautiously as he approached the mannequin and the wall,
holding an arm out to prevent collisions.

Dobelle said an improved version of the device should go on
sale overseas, in limited numbers, this year. He said
yesterday that it was not yet clear when it might be available
in the United States.


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