Promising technologies help the blind to see

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An Israeli company called Nano Retina is trialling a device that can help restore sight in blind people. An artificial retinal implant, the Nano Retina chip is placed above the retina and contains a camera-like component that receives the picture through the eye’s natural optics — in other words, it sees what the eye sees. The image is transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain’s neurons, which are capable of receiving and decoding it.

The images are scanned by eye movement and then captured within the chip. Using an electrical pulse, the chip stimulates neurons in remaining healthy retinal layers, sending the image information to the brain. The technology uses infra-red lasers and wireless glasses to control the chip and tune light settings.

Unfortunately, the implant will not provide users with the sharp, colourful image that natural sight offers. Because the implant’s operation is based on breaking the image down into pixels, like in a digital camera, in a quantity that enables sight, they offer only black and white visuals.

“As we develop the device, we put emphasis on giving blind people back functional sight that will allow them to function in society, enabling them to go outside their homes and find their way. Reading isn’t at the top of the list. Most of these people stop going outside. We want to give them back the ability to function that was stolen from them,” Nano Retina’s Managing Director Ra'anan Gefen told an Israeli media outlet.

This is not the only promising Israeli technology for people with blindness. Project Ray, a smartphone specially designed for blind and sight-impaired users, was also developed in the Middle Eastern country.

The smartphone uses sensors to help people with impaired sight navigate the world. The device allows users to control the phone by voice and touch. For example, when a user calls up a location program and swipes it, the device will use a GPS chip to tell them where they are. It also lets blind users make phone calls, send text messages, browse the Internet, identify the denomination of cash, recognise colours, and provides access to over 100 000 audio books and magazines.

 

Orama digital glasses are another brainchild of the Israelis. Using an ‘enhanced vision engine’ that combines artificial intelligence, eye-tracking software, computer vision and other software and hardware, including a built-in 3D camera, it fills in the gaps from loss of vision and optimises the image in front of the user’s eyes. The eyewear is personalised to each user through eye mapping, a procedure that establishes the location of healthy retinal cells.

Once the extent of a person’s retinal damage has been established, a set of glasses is specially built to project images onto the healthy part of the eye to enhance their central vision. The working prototype has been tested on more than 60 patients in Tel Aviv. During initial trials, people were able to recognise faces of loved ones and see more clearly.

This technology has been patented in the United States, China, and Australia and is patent-pending in Europe and Japan. The company hopes to be selling Orama glasses globally by mid-2020.

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.

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