Braille is a tactile writing system used to help people with visual impairments to read. Braille characters are formed by raised or indented bumps called cells, which are arranged in a certain way to form words. The system was created by Louis Braille who developed the code after turning blind in childhood. It can commonly be found in books, on signs, maps and other guides, but it appears that this traditional method may soon be replaced by a new alternative. With the recent popularity of screen-reader software which is able to translate what is shown on the screen through speech or sound, Braille usage has declined. However new research has adapted the traditional methods with new technology for a system that could provide a solution to visually-impaired patients.
For the first time, scientists have developed a way of streaming Braille patterns directly onto the retina of a visually-impaired patient to allow them to read quickly and accurately. The device used to achieve this has been named the Argus II and is a neuroprosthetic device implanted into the eye which responds to a small camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The image seen by the camera is translated into electrical stimulation which then sends a signal to a microchip with electrodes implanted on the retina. A unique benefit of the Argus II is that the image processing takes place before the signal is even sent to the implant.
The study was carried out by researchers at Second Sight, the company which designed the device, and could signify an important medical breakthrough for patients suffering from poor vision. Researcher Thomas Lauritzen was the lead author of the paper detailing the experiment and he describes how the patient was able to see patterns projected with up to 89% accuracy, all without feeling the Braille with his fingers.
The implant on the retina uses a grid of 60 electrodes which can directly print patterns onto the nerve cells. During the study, just 6 of the electrodes were used to show the Braille letters to the patient. For the short words shown, the patient was shown to demonstrate up to 80% accuracy when interpreting the Braille.
This experiment is an important breakthrough for clinical eye research which may provide hope for visually-impaired sufferers in the future. Whilst the Argus II is, at this point, primarily for patients suffering from the genetic disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), it is hoped that the technology will be developed to provide a solution to other eye conditions. With the addition of letter recognition software, the Argus II could potentially be a new and faster alternative to traditional Braille usage.
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