First published on 22 Apr 2012. Updated on 24 Apr 2012.
Arthur Lowery is a renaissance man in the modern sense. Since 2010, his latest feat has been leading a Monash University A-team in the development of a bionic eye using a cortical implant – a surgical electronic implanted device that allows the blind to see.
With all test reports coming up positive, it hopefully won’t be long before guide dogs are put into an early retirement and walking canes are something of the past.
Professor Lowery, for us non-science folk, can you explain how the microchips work?
The bionic vision system works by taking a camera's output, then using software to extract the most important features for a particular task. The processes signals are sent by a wireless link to the implants, which decode them and send currents to tiny electrodes penetrating into the surface of the brain. These currents stimulate the neurons in the brain to 'fire'. In a normal-sighted person the neurons would be firing due to signals coming from the eye, so we are tricking the neurons into thinking they have received a true visual image.
How will this impact the blind?
Over 50,000 people in Australia are considered clinically blind. The number exceeds 160 million globally. These are early days, but even a simple picture with tens to hundreds of dots can convey significant information, especially if the picture is updated a few times a second. An example is a radar display – a few moving dots shows where things are, how fast they are moving, and in what direction they are moving.
Is it similar to the technology behind a computer screen?
The bionic vision prosthesis is like a tiny tile that sits on the surface of the brain. Electrodes on the tile stimulate the brain into seeing a picture, like the dots on a computer screen, but far fewer and in black and white.
How far have we come in this kind of technology?
Electronics is getting far more powerful, computationally, so what would have required a large PC 20 years ago requires a pocket-sized processor. Fantastic quality miniature cameras are also available, as are longer-lasting batteries and low-power electronics. The biological interface has not changed a lot, as we are working at the limits of material engineering, but new materials will be tested in the coming years for bio-compatibility, but this takes time.
And, how far off are we in using the bionic chip?
Monash University is leading a project with partners Grey Innovation, MiniFAB and the Alfred Hospital. We have a very focussed project to develop bionic vision based on brain implants, and we are aiming for the first human trial by April 2014.
So where to from there?
We are basically making a miniaturised electronic system, part of which sits on the brain and is powered by the wireless link. The issues are miniaturisation. Fortunately electronics is good at this, at least for handheld devices, but the other challenge is working with the biology, as the body does not like implants.
Pretend it’s the year 2050. What do you predict in terms of bionic eye technology?
I think the quality will evolve as we develop new materials, and people will find ways to use this technology for more than vision.
How did you come to live in Melbourne?
I was born in Yorkshire, near where Captain Cook came from. We both found more interesting lives across the seas! I was actually offered a job while giving a talk at Bell labs on simulating photonic devices with computers.
How did you get involved in this research?
Before joining Monash I founded a company VPIsystems, which creates software for designing telecommunications systems, from laser diodes to broadband networks. Many of the innovations in telecommunications over the last 15 years have been developed using this software.
I have had a very long interest in electronics, stemming back to a battery and bells kit that I received for Christmas when I was four.
Battery and bells kit – that seems like an unusual gift to give to a child. What compelled your parents to give you this?
My father was a chemical engineer and likes building things, my mother was a teacher. I received lots of building toys, like wooden blocks with pegs, Meccano, train sets and some really nice electronics kits made by Philips. My aim was to make something complex that would behave in an unexpected way, but that tends to be difficult with most toys. Software programming comes close.
What else did you make?
I remember at six trying to make a device that would read cooking recipes to my grandmother, who could not see that well. I got as far as a box, a roll of paper and a lightbulb. My father said: "I think you will need something else in the box." Of course, now you would use a webcam, text recognition software, and a text-to-speech processor, but that was not available in the 1960s.
My first patent application was at 21. It was for a logic probe, which is a pencil-type device for checking voltages on circuits. The novelty was that it shone the indicator light onto the circuit, so your eye did not have to refocus from the probe tip to the indicator, which was usually at the other end to the tip.
My main contribution has been the development of software for designing telecommunications systems. I founded Virtual Photonics with my research fellow, Phil Gurney, in 1996 to commercialise this. It became VPIsystems, which designs communications systems around the world, but has also supplied the software used to design lasers and optical systems.