Wednesday, 21 Oct, 2009 Technology
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Latest Invention: Robot That Tests Visual Implants for Blind People

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The latest invention of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a remote-controlled robot that was developed to emulate the vision of a blind person who has a visual prosthesis implanted in the eye, for instance an artificial retina (aka retinal prosthesis). The latter is made of a silicon chip that has several electrodes, which directly stimulate the nerve cells found in the retina.

Scientists believe that their latest invention, dubbed CYCLOPS, could provide blind people the possibility to freely walk around different spaces, avoiding various barriers. CYCLOPS represents a mobile robotic platform and is considered to be the first in the world that can simulate the vision of a blind person who has an artificial retina. The description of the device and its possible uses were published in the journal Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine.

To be able to capture images the artificial retina makes use of an internal or external tiny camera. The pictures that were captured are then processes and transmitted to the electrodes in the silicone chip, which, in its turn, directly stimulates the retinal ganglion cells in the eye of the patient. These cells carry the information about the image to the brain's vision centers.

This latest invention can also be used to help researchers determine the level of resolution in an array of 50 pixels or 16 pixels in a retinal prosthesis, and identify which one is better. It is worth mentioning that the camera on the device is gimbaled, thus it is able to simulate left-to-right and up-and-down head movements. Real-time image processing is carried out by the computing platform inside the robot. Using a joystick, the platform can be controlled from any part of the world using wireless Internet connection.

"We have the image-processing algorithms running locally on the robot's platform - but we have to get it to the point where it has complete control of its own responses. We can run many, many tests without bothering the blind prosthesis carriers", said Wolfgang Fink, a visiting associate in physics at Caltech.

With the help of their latest invention researchers from Caltech hope to make the living environment more accessible for visually impaired people with certain vision prosthesis. In addition, the robot could help researchers decide whether a specific visual implant is really worth testing in blind people.

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