After a devastating car crash in December 2011, 23-year-old aspiring pilot Jason Esterhuizen found himself in the hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, hours away from his hometown. Even worse, the accident destroyed his eyes, leaving him completely blind. Now, a new bionic eye developed by Los Angeles area company Second Sight has allowed him to see movement and light, like the candles on his birthday cake.
Esterhuizen first heard about Second Sight in 2013 when he tuned into a TV program profiling the startup. It had recently received FDA approval for a device developed to help people with blindness caused by the rare genetic disorder retinitis pigmentosa. Esterhuizen didn’t have that condition, but five years later Second Sight had branched out to create implants that help blind people with eye injuries.
Second Sight’s new bionic eye, dubbed Orion, began testing in 2018. One of just six candidates, Esterhuizen and his wife picked up and moved from South Africa to Los Angeles to participate in the study. Along with eye injuries, Second Sight aimed to use Orion to provide artificial sight to people who had gone blind due to a wide range of causes. These include optic nerve injury or disease, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.
On the outside, Orion looks like a regular pair of sunglasses. The frames feature a small camera and video processing unit (VPU). Inside the brain, however, is where it gets interesting. Through a surgical procedure, a postage-stamp-sized neural interface is implanted. It sits directly on the visual cortex. The chip interacts with the part of the brain that processes visual information via 60 electrodes.
Then, the VPU takes images from the camera and converts them into electrical pulses, the “language” of the brain, using an algorithm. The pulses surge into the visual cortex through the electrodes. This process provides the brain with visual cues, similar to the way real eyes work. After being fitted with the neural implant, Esterhuizen said he could see cars moving around and his birthday candles for the first time in seven years.
Orion is an amazing device. However, there are some drawbacks. Chief among them is a risky brain operation. Nonetheless, it’s Orion’s neural interface that sets it apart from similar devices including Second Sight’s own Argus II. The latter device is what the company first received FDA approval for.
However, the original retinal implant wouldn’t work for blind people like Esterhuizen with eye injury or loss. Therefore, Orion is an enticing option. For Esterhuizen it was well worth the risk. There’s still a lot of research that needs to happen, but Esterhuizen is confident that Second Sight is on the right track. “It’s just baby steps for now,” he said. “But eventually I think this technology will change the lives of millions of people.”