On This Day: 24th October 1956

A lesser known biomedical researcher, by the name of William Harvey “Bill” Dobelle, can be considered a modern-day saviour in this day and age. In 1978, Dr Dobelle created history for the progression of artificial vision for the blind using electrical transmissions in the brain, gifting them with limited vision.

A fervent believer in artificial technology, his impressive resume included creating the only US Food and Drug Administration approved portable breathing diaphragm pacemaker to help those with respiratory problems for the pacemaker industry, and redesigning the artificial hip while still in high school. However, his brain child would be the “Dobelle eye” invention. Dr William Dobelle was convinced that an external sensor that creates the digital image could be conveyed to the brain as usable sight.

The “Dobelle eye” system uses a tiny camera fixed in glasses worn by the blind person, the images are transmitted to a portable computer and then to 68 surgically-implanted platinum electrodes, which are attached to the brain’s visual cortex.

Dr William Dobelle persevered and persisted in his belief of helping the partially and totally blind regain some measure of sight. After close to 30 years with a group of scientists under his tutelage, Dr Dobelle rose to fame in 2000 after a 62-year-old volunteer participant was able to recover limited navigational abilities. This was where the prestigious Dobelle Institute began to make its name, known to specialise in the field of artificial vision. The interesting part of the “Dobelle eye” apparatus is that it produced close to 100 specks of dotted light to form an outline of the object. These specks of light appear and disappear according to the vision change. The constellation of dots is known as phosphenes and have been likened to stars that hide behind passing clouds, from participants’ observations.

“An external sensor that creates the digital image could be conveyed to the brain as usable sight.”

Though the “Dobelle eye” invention was still in an experimental stage, it has provided tremendous hope to those who have resigned to the fact that darkness will plague them till their death. It is necessary to add that the technology would not regain their full visual sight like fully sighted people people, but it does increase their independence by more than half as they are able to navigate around more than they could. For example, allowing them to drive short distances.

Needless to say, the cost for curing blindness has come at a hefty price. The entire visual prosthesis system costs $100,000 which includes a miniature camera mounted on special glasses, a frame grabber, microcomputer, stimulus generation module, and two implanted electrode arrays with percutaneous pedestals. This does not include patient psychiatric evaluation which costs up to $3,000 and hospital care expenses which can grow to $10,000. However, these astronomical figures have become normal to Dr Dobelle, he has given close to 30 years of his life to this cause and at a price tag of $25 million.

For Dr William Dobelle, he has sacrifice countless things for this cause, all of which are secondary when it comes to the time spent tinkering with the “Dobelle eye”, time which cannot be replaced or bought back. Hence, it is that sense of urgency to succeed whatever the cost to make up for the blood, sweat and tears he has invested for this grand cause that continues to influence the artificial vision technology of today. For us, it’s called an invention, for them, it’s called hope.

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