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Visual impairment has been a blind spot during the pandemic; technology can address it

What’s happening? A retinal implant that can provide artificial vision to blind people has been developed by Ecole Polytechnique federale de Lausanne researchers. The implant works in combination with smart glasses containing a camera that takes images in the wearer’s visual field, and a microcomputer to process the data and send it to the implant’s 10,500 electrodes. These stimulate the retina, allowing the wearer to see a simplified monochrome image made up of dots of light. The dots are then interpreted by the wearer so they can discern shapes and objects. VR simulations have proven the efficacy of the system. (SciTechDaily, Communications Materials)

Why does this matter? Many causes of blindness – such as refractive errors and cataracts – are treatable. For those that aren’t, technology like this would make a real difference to the lives of those living with severe visual impairment. This implant, however, has yet to be trialled in patients.

People with visual impairment have suffered even greater challenges than usual during the Covid-19 pandemic, including vital information sources – such as government websites and portals to book vaccines – not taking blindness into account in their design. Social distancing has also been almost impossible for blind people, leaving them at greater risk of isolation and loss of independence.

Other technology that can help – There’s a whole host of new technologies that have the potential to improve the daily lives of blind people. For instance, the issue of social distancing has been addressed with a wristband that uses sonar to detect objects, and which vibrates to give the wearer information about proximity. Apple has also got in on the act, with an accessibility feature on the iPhone that uses the camera to detect people and tell the user how close they are.

Another great example is the introduction of AI-powered smart glasses. These can extract information from images and documents and speak them out, while also offering the ability to make video calls. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap – one pair cost £3,234 ($4,513), which is out of range for many.

Lateral thought There’s no word if the retinal implant will take the form of a connected device but, if so, then cybersecurity will be an important issue to consider. Other implants, such as Abbott’s pacemakers and Medtronic’s cardiac defibrillators, have previously been found to be vulnerable to hackers. This continues to be a problem for many devices.

Not only can personal data potentially fall into the wrong hands, it also presents the opportunity for hackers to take control of implants. For example, a heartbeat could be manipulated, or a battery be turned off, leading to dire consequences for the patient. Hacking people’s vision, while sounding somewhat dystopian, could lead to a similar fate and this risk should be adequately considered by the developers of this technology.

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Nicola Watts

Health Care Curator

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