Science and Sight

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The role of scientists' sight in data analysis, scientific advances in curing blindness, and the future of enhancing human vision Humans are visual creatures, reflected in the large amount of brain tissue we dedicate to the process of seeing and to interpreting images. But despite the huge chunk of brain already dedicated to seeing, Edward Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization often referred to as the “Galileo of Graphics,” urges us to commit even more brainpower and awareness to the act of seeing.

For scientists, analytic seeing plays a large role in data interpretation. While computers can handle the majority of types of data analysis, the initial interpretation of our experiments still relies on the human act of analytic seeing.

In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday Tufte recommends that, “[during] analytical seeing, I believe you should try to stay in the sheer optical experience as long as possible. As, once you have an idea, or somebody tells you something to look for, that's about all you can see.”

Before looking at the data from a new experiment, I often already have an idea of the result or image I am hoping to see. Scientists are fortunate that it is possible to either verify or disprove anything we might think we “see” in our data using the quantitative analysis of unbiased computers. (Presuming we didn’t program them to “see” the result of our dreams.) However feeble our eyes and minds may be, technology ensures we need not rely solely on our eyesight for data analysis and scientific discovery.

While listening to Science Friday and contemplating the act of “analytic seeing” during data analysis and scientific discovery, I found myself wondering about the inverse relationship. What will advances in science and technology bring for the future of human sight? The last year has seen incredible strides toward vision repair for those with faulty retinas.

Human eyes contain two types of photoreceptors, highly light-sensitive rods, which are responsible for night vision, and cones for full-color day vision. Scientists have been able to directly inject progenitor rod-photoreceptor cells from healthy mice into the retinas of visually impaired mice and restore their vision. While their repaired vision is not equivalent to “normal” mouse vision, the transplanted cells were able to form connections needed to transmit information to the brain, allowing the mice to complete a dimly lit maze. Although the mouse transplant study was only able to restore rods (non-color photoreceptors), findings from University of Alberta researchers have demonstrated that zebrafish’s stem cells can selectively regenerate damaged cone-photoreceptors, which would allow for full color vision repair! These studies seem quite promising for repairing human vision, but both still require invasive surgical procedures.  

As an alternative to invasive, irreversible chip implants, gene therapy, and stem cells, a simple chemical called AAQ has been shown to repair vision in mice. The chemical acts as a “photoswitch,” causing cells neighboring the photoreceptors that are normally blind to become sensitive to light.

The most sci-fi solution for vision loss has to be the “bionic eye.” This therapy, straight out of Star-trek, involves the implant of an electronic visual prosthesis. The sensor is plopped right on top of your damaged retina, and 576 electrodes on the back of the sensor implant themselves into the optic nerve. An embedded image processor converts the data from each of the pixels into electrical pulses encoded such that the brain can interpret them as different levels of grayscale. 

The user also wears a pair of glasses with a camera that provides battery power and is able to talk wirelessly to the implant.  In the future these glasses can be upgraded with software updates, for features like optical zoom or potentially color vision, without the need to manipulate the implant.  These “bionic eyes” are under review for FDA approval and have been implanted in many people with varying levels of success, the most successful being able to read letters just a few inches tall!

Science has not only brought great advances in vision repair, but the future of enhanced human vision looks a lot like a video game!  You may have heard some of the rage about Google's Project Glass, Google’s futuristic glasses that are created to provide a “glance-able” display that would display smartphone-type information and be able to interact with the internet via voice commands.  The video for Project Glass looks impressive, but is far from reality at the moment.  The prototype of Google’s glasses uses a small screen in the periphery of your field of vision, with the problem being that we cannot actually focus on images so close to our eyes.

But a small startup from Seattle, Innovega, has stepped up to solve Google’s problem with its unique contact lens technology, iOptik.  These wearable, gas-permeable contact lenses refocus light to let users see images and text projected onto glasses, without blocking the normal view of far distance objects behind the glasses, essentially allowing the user to focus on objects at different distances simultaneously.

This display device is compatible with any operating system that generates an HDMI output and Innovega is currently working with DARPA to develop a wearable prototype by September, with a goal of bringing the technology to market by 2015.

So the future of human vision looks pretty amazing, possibly arriving as soon as two years. These advances will bring a whole new perspective to the act of seeing, both analytic seeing and the future of “interactive seeing.” I wonder what Edward Tufte would think about these enhanced vision devices. Will they help us interact with the world? Or become a big distraction that prevents us from truly seeing anything? These are important questions to keep in mind as we move forward with enhancing human vision and creating interactive augmented reality. But I, for one, am looking forward to it.

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