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Scientists develop world’s first spherical artificial eye with 3D retina

An international research team behind the world’s first 3D artificial eye have claimed that their technology possesses greater capabilities than existing bionic eyes and even human eyes in some cases.

Led by scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), researchers have developed the Electrochemical Eye (EC-Eye), which is said to replicate the structure of a natural eye for the first time. It also has the potential to offer sharper vision than human eyes in the future, with extra functions such as the ability to detect infrared radiation in darkness.

According to HKUST, scientists have spent decades trying to replicate the structure and clarity of a biological eye, but vision provided through existing prosthetic eyes – largely in the form of spectacles attached with external cables – produce poor resolution with 2D flat image sensors.

The key feature of the breakthrough is a 3D artificial retina made of an array of nanowire light sensors which mimic the photoreceptors in human retinas.

Developed by Professor Fan Zhiyong and Dr Gu Leilei, from the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at HKUST, the team connected the nanowire light sensors to a bundle of liquid-metal wires serving as nerves behind the man-made hemispherical retina during the experiment.

They successfully replicated the visual signal transmission to reflect what the eye sees onto the computer screen.

In future, they hope the nanowire light sensors could be directly connected to the nerves of visually impaired patients.

Due to the nanowires having higher density than photoreceptors in human retina, the researchers also believe the artificial retina could receive more light signals and potentially attain a higher image resolution than the human retina.

With different materials used to boost the sensors’ sensitivity and spectral range, the artificial eye may also achieve other functions such as night vision.

“I have always been a big fan of science fiction, and I believe many technologies featured in stories such as those of intergalactic travel, will one day become reality. However, regardless of image resolution, angle of views or user-friendliness, the current bionic eyes are still of no match to their natural human counterpart,” Fan said.

“A new technology to address these problems is in urgent need, and it gives me a strong motivation to start this unconventional project.”

The team collaborated with the University of California, Berkeley, with findings recently published in the scientific journal Nature.

“In the next step, we plan to further improve the performance, stability and biocompatibility of our device. For prosthesis application, we look forward to collaborating with medical research experts who have the relevant expertise on optometry and ocular prosthesis,” Fan added.

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