May 15, 2012 at 5:25 PM ET
There is much research going on in the vision-restoration sector, and clinical trials are already underway for things like artificial retinas. But a new approach uses a pair of goggles to relay light into the eyes, not unlike the familiar visor worn by Geordi LaForge in Star Trek.
The metaphor isn't perfect, but it serves to illustrate the difference between this system and something like retina replacement. Stanford University's James Loudin tells Nature: "I'm not well versed in Star Trek anymore, and I don't think Geordi had implants. However, like his visor, our patients cannot see without the goggles."
Essentially the goggles would have cameras on the front and projectors on the back; the projectors would send images using near-infrared light to a photodiode array (a grid of light-sensing elements) implanted in the eye, which would in turn relay that information to retinal cells. Since the image processing occurs outside the eye and the photodiodes are powered by the light that hits them, the implanted element is much smaller and simpler, and consequently safer and less expensive.
This image from Loudin's paper illustrates how the system works, though of course the real device will look different from these renders:
The downside is that the goggles must always be on in order for people to see. However, once they are on, wearers can look around using normal eye movement, as if they were seeing the world through normal glasses.
Loudin's research was published this month in Nature Photonics. Like the more implant-intensive approaches, the system is still a ways from being approved and available to the public. But experts suggest it's a matter of years, not decades, before some blind and vision-impaired people will be sporting technology that was very recently only to be found aboard the Enterprise.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.