Chris Ashton

dai11y 25/03/2022

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Their bionic eyes are now obsolete and unsupported

A worrying look at retinal implants provided by Second Sight, which has been in financial difficulty and no longer supports the products.

In the early 2000’s, the company produced the Argus I implant, and a second generation Argus II later. The former has a 16 electrode array, and the latter a 60 electrode array, each capable of rendering one ‘pixel’. The electrodes “stimulate the eye in different patterns multiple times per second, creating flashes of light that correspond to a low resolution video feed”. It does not provide normal vision by any means, rather it allows users to “perceive shades of grey that appear and disappear as they move their heads”.

After the 4 hour surgical procedure, patients had mixed success. Whilst some patients struggled to see even basic patterns and shapes, others were able to visit the grocery store without the use of a cane, and even able to ski and shoot arrows.

But the company discontinued its retinal implant business in 2019 and nearly went out of business in 2020. After a public offering to raise money in June 2021, its stock price plunged, and in February 2022 the company announced a proposed merger with an early stage company called Nano Precision Medical.

It is now focussing on a brain implant called Orion, which would bypass the eye altogether and “directly stimulate the visual cortex”. This would in theory be applicable to a wider market.

But the early adopters who had retinal implants installed now face an uncertain future. With the implants no longer maintained, when they stop working, they cannot be fixed. Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station at rush-hour when her world suddenly went dark. Jeroen Perk’s video processing unit fell to the ground and shattered; he had to source a replacement from another patient who was no longer using their device.

The implants can have medical complications too, such as interfering with MRIs. Whilst 83% of patients “experienced no serious events after two years”, some required surgery for hemorrhages, low eye pressure and detached retinas.

As a developer myself, I’m all too used to apps, libraries, frameworks and even hardware becoming obsolete. But the industry needs to have a serious think about how it can ensure longevity for patients of such invasive and life-changing technology.

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