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The human eye already has a rival that adds night vision and could soon help people with blindness as a prosthesis or be used in robotic systems.
Our eyes are already a marvel of nature: with more than six million cones and one hundred and twenty million rods, i.e., photosensitive cells, they are capable of showing us the world in all its beauty and with a resolution that the latest flat-screen TVs cannot reach. In fact, it is estimated that 80% of the information that reaches our brains does so through the eyes. However, researchers have been looking for alternatives for some time. Firstly, to help people who have lost their sight and, secondly, to equip robotic systems with more efficient technologies. That was the goal of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology research team, led by Zhiyong Fan, in creating its new prototype bionic eye. And, theoretically, what they have achieved could far exceed the performance of our traditional eyeballs.
The outcome of this innovative technology project is a three-dimensional retina with a dense network of highly photosensitive nanotubes. The team has incorporated an aluminum oxide membrane with tiny sensors of perovskite, a photosensitive material used for some solar panels. Once these "cells" capture the light signals, they transmit them through the network of tubes that simulate the visual cortex and are connected to the processing unit. The point is that the nanotubes are so sensitive that they can exceed the wavelength of the human eye, reaching frequencies of 800 nm (nanometers). Or, in other words, the spectrum between visible light and infrared radiation. And that would mean, as its developers point out, providing the human being with night vision. Just for reference, the human eye can handle between two hundred and eight hundred nanometers.
Another advantage over biological eyes is that the new device can adapt to differences in light intensity much faster. Also, the density of the bionic eye prototype's nanotubes is six times greater than the vision cells of the human retina.
All this means that the device could have more resolution than its biological relative. In other words, a human being equipped with this prosthesis could see at night and distinguish more distant objects. The researchers, however, clarify that this potential is limited by the size of the rear contact electrode. In any case, they believe that the new technology could have multiple applications in rescue operations, security, and even refereeing of sporting events. However, the real revolution would be to restore sight to people with blindness problems. But, before achieving that, the real challenge will be to connect that vision system to our nervous system. Some scientists believe that this will happen by the end of this decade. And progress is being made in that direction, thanks to the use of technologies such as 3D printing. It is yet to be seen.