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The curved camera sensor with a lense in a spherical glass package, mounted on a circuit board to receive the output. Such a device could see action in the next generation of war robots as well as seeing domestic use in eyeball replacements or ocular implants.  (Source: John Rogers/Nature)
Artificial eyeball could find its way into war robots and humans alike as a vision replacement or enhancement

DailyTech has detailed the progress of advances in artificial vision.  Past advances consisted of the successful implantation of arrays of electrodes, which took the place of dead rods and cones and could stimulate the optic nerve to "see" patterns.  Such efforts could be seen as a stepping stone to what these researchers hope to accomplish.

The University of Illinois and Northwestern University have taken artificial vision to the next level by designing a fully artificial eyeball, which could one day "plug in" to the optic nerve for a vision replacement or enhancement. 

The project began with Yonggang Huang, Joseph Cummings Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and John Rogers, the Flory-Founder Chair Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They teamed up to create a naturally curved array of silicon detectors and electronics that can make in essence a curved camera sensor, which mimics the human eye's design.  The curved surface, like in the eye would act as the focal plane of the camera and capture an image.

The research was the cover story of the August 7 edition of the journal Nature and can be read here.

Optics engineers have long known that the natural solution was the optimal one.  Where cameras have to bounce light through a series of lenses to get it to form an image on a flat surface, a curved sensor could accept light passed through a single lens covered aperture akin to the lens and pupil of the eye.

Professor Rogers took over the design of curved surface to print the electronics on creating a thin elastomeric membrane -- basically rubber -- that could be stretched flat.  After printing electronics on the membrane, it was unstretched, popping back to a hemispherical configuration. 

One critical challenge is that brittle semiconductor materials typically crack under the stress of curving.  To overcome this Professor Rogers and Professor Huang created an array of electronics so tiny it was unaffected by the curvature.  The array's photodetectors and circuits comprised a 100 micrometer square, comprising a pixel of the device.  Similar to buildings on a curved Earth, the scale of the curvature versus the tiny size of the array was enough that the silicon went unharmed.

Multiple pixels are connected together via thin metal wires on plastic, which the pair call "pop-up bridges" as they pop off the rubber surface when the device snaps back in place.  These bridges help to relieve stress when the substrate returns a spherical shape.  They were able to further relieve stress by sandwiching the silicon devices between two curved layers in the so-called natural mechanical plane, which minimizes stress.

The method works quite well.  When tested after returning to a spherical shape, 99 percent of the devices still worked.  Better yet, the silicon was only compressed .002 percent -- well below the 1 percent where silicon devices typically fail and break.

The researchers took initial images from the electronic eye-type camera and found them to be startlingly clear.  When compared to planar camera images with a similar sensor, the eyeball camera easily triumphed.  Professor Huang stated, "In a conventional, planar camera, parts of the images that fall at the edges of the fields of view are typically not imaged well using simple optics.  The hemisphere layout of the electronic eye eliminates this and other limitations, thereby providing improved imaging characteristics."

To make the final design, the hemispherical membrane plus electronics was mounted on a hemispherical piece of glass.  Then a lens and further components are added.  The end result is a camera roughly the size and shape of a human eye.  The current version is limited to 256 pixels, but researchers are quickly increasing this number.

This is the first device of this nature that could potentially be used as a full replacement to the human eyeball.  As imaging electronics improve, the image sensors of the device will only improve, yielding the possibility of better than human vision resolutions in years to come.

The new device, which has transformed a long-standing science fiction staple into reality, could eventually see full implant if an interface to the optic nerve is developed.  Before that, it will likely see action in the next generation of ocular implants.  It could also see use in the next generation of war robots, many of which contain image processing capabilities.

With either application the revolutionary curved sensor is the key to it all, as it produces a better image.  As Professor Rogers said, "Optics simulations and imaging studies show that these systems provide a much broader field of view, improved illumination uniformity and fewer aberrations than flat cameras with similar imaging lenses.  Hemispherical detector arrays are also much better suited for use as retinal implants than flat detectors.  The ability to wrap high quality silicon devices onto complex surfaces and biological tissues adds very interesting and powerful capabilities to electronic and optoelectronic device design, with many new application possibilities."

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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By Rhl on 8/7/2008 5:12:22 PM , Rating: 5
As a sufferer of Keratoconus that has already undergone one corneal transplant and is developing Keratoconus in the other eye, this is amazing news for me.

Instead of another painful corneal transplant (which limits your activities for the following month), and the subsequently painful loosening of stitches that come up to the surface of the eye (and have to be plucked out), I can just have one/both of my eyeballs ripped out and replaced with awesome artificial robot eyes.

Amusing that the handicapped and diseased people will eventually be more capable than the normal ones. Can't wait for 12x zoom!

RE: Excellent
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 8/7/2008 5:19:42 PM , Rating: 3
ouch! you take all the fun out of surgery.
Thanks for the explanation of eye surgery. I give thanks to the powers that be that I have a good set of eye balls. I hope you don't have to go through another surgery on your eyes, I would add, I hope to never have to experience this first hand myself. Though having a strong zoom feature would be pretty cool.

RE: Excellent
By akugami on 8/7/2008 5:31:50 PM , Rating: 5
So in the near future my next visit to get glasses might to something like this.

Hi welcome to Glasses Emporium. Would you like the new Oculus X12 eyeballs? They're a favorite of peeping toms everywhere with their crystal clarity 20MP resolution and 12x optical zoom. Now you can peep at the girl taking a shower from down the block as if you were standing next to her!

RE: Excellent
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 8/7/2008 5:34:32 PM , Rating: 5
you forgot to add in thermal and x-ray vision features. If you are going to do it, do it right. :)

RE: Excellent
By daftrok on 8/10/2008 3:42:57 AM , Rating: 3
And night vision. And built in flash memory for recording and slow motion!

RE: Excellent
By amanojaku on 8/7/2008 5:33:16 PM , Rating: 2
I think it's only fair that your robotic eyes give you X-Ray vision if you were afflicted with an eye disease.

"My super power is the ability to undress you with my eyes!" =)

RE: Excellent
By exanimas on 8/7/2008 6:35:56 PM , Rating: 3
>>"Amusing that the handicapped and diseased people will eventually be more capable than the normal ones. Can't wait for 12x zoom!"

I refer you to Ghost in the Shell, where those who still keep their organic bodies are considered handicapped (to an extent) and strange.

I hate seeing articles like this though, because 90% of this technology probably won't be mainstream within the next 10 or so years. I'll be too old to enjoy crazy robot eyes! (Hmm, on second thought maybe you can never be too old to enjoy crazy robot eyes. You decide.)

RE: Excellent
By TreeDude62 on 8/7/2008 10:23:56 PM , Rating: 2
It was just last year that, for they very first time, they hooked a camera directly to someone's brain so they could see again (not very well, but it was enough to make out a face and shapes). Now already the tech has been shrunk down (and improved upon) to the point were it can actually be your eyeball instead of an external camera. You think 10 years? I say next year they will actually implant this in a person. Then 3-4 years till it is out of trials and is an option for everyone.

It may be 10 years until the tech is 100% better than the eye you were born with though.

RE: Excellent
By cane on 8/8/2008 3:28:19 AM , Rating: 2
Not really... it was back in 1988, when Dr. Mark Humayun demonstrated that a blind person could be made to see light by stimulating the nerve ganglia behind the retina with an electrical current. Sure it has evolved somewhat since then, but not in the pace that you think.

RE: Excellent
By DanoruX on 8/8/2008 1:55:22 PM , Rating: 2
As long as the pace is exponential, we'll have those 10MP cyber-eyes within the next two decades...

RE: Excellent
By William Gaatjes on 8/8/2008 2:29:53 AM , Rating: 2
If you would also be able to store the picture you see on a seperate storage device, you could be the first bionic double agent too :).

Everywhere you go just take a picture.

Maybe enhance it with infrared too.

RE: Excellent
By Belard on 8/8/2008 7:14:05 AM , Rating: 2
Not just that!

Imagine if someone did a hit and run, you tell your eye to save the image. No more having a camera phone to pull out whily they get away. You get the plates and snap shot of the bad guys, etc.

Record who actually starts a fight, cheated, etc.

But there is a problem. RIAA/MPAA - you go see a movie, and your eyes could be used to pirate a movie. They'd have to make you turn off your eyes or something ;)

The worse thing thou... waking up and seeing Microsoft's BSOD displayed or R.O.D. so that people around you will know your eyes needs to be sent off for repair.

RE: Excellent
By William Gaatjes on 8/8/2008 7:51:45 AM , Rating: 3
HA !

We don't want windows as os anyway. You would have eyes at the size seen with giant squids (1 foot in diameter).

A revelation !

Maybe it is true that the grey aliens with big eyes are humans from the future.

These future humans have bionic eyes with a bloated os.
BSOD is still true : black Sight Of Death.

But more on a more serious note, These eyes would have an embedded os and should not be updated. But upgrading the most of the eye should be possible.

RE: Excellent
By DeepBlue1975 on 8/8/2008 10:58:42 AM , Rating: 2
My wife is a Keratoconus patient (both eyes affected), too.

Have you done any research on the new operations like intacs or cross-linking?

My wife's worse eye had intacs done 3 years ago and she partially recovered some of the lost vision.

With her good eye she had perfect vision, but over three years an eye analysis showed her how this eye was slowly degrading, and so they performed corrslinking on that eye, too.

After crosslinking, she suffered a horrible eye pain (intacs was totally painless for her, even though it's a more complex intervention) for two days and could only see everything blurred, but after the 3rd day the pain was gone and her vision started coming back to normal.

By now she still needs glasses to focus well (which she didn't need in her good eye before the operation) but not yet being 2 months after the operation she can focus better and has to use the glasses a lot less than in the first days and the doc said she will fully recover the vision of that good eye and then some, and that there's also the possibility that in her not so good one, crosslinking helps to further improve her vision on that eye after intacs.

Maybe you could try to find out about these interventions, they are not that expensive (not cheap, either) and you don't have to wait for a corneal transplant and suffer all that process.

RE: Excellent
By UsernameX on 8/8/2008 2:27:47 PM , Rating: 3
As a sufferer of Keratoconus that has already undergone one corneal transplant and is developing Keratoconus in the other eye, this is amazing news for me.

Rhl, that's sounds terrible! I myself have a rare eye disease; choroideremia. I realized I had this disease when my friends were able to see things much better at night then I could. What happens is that you slowly loose all of your night vision, peripheral vision, depth perception, and lastly your vision entirely. I'm 24 right now and without some kind of flash light at night, I'm screwed. They expect by the time I'm 50, I will be completely vision impaired.

Anyways, to the point! This is fantastic news! I hope this comes before my loss of vision entirely.

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