Surrogate Robot for the Blind
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Surrogate Robot for the Blind

July 30, 2010
CYCLOPS, a remote-controlled robot developed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), can simulate the "visual" experience of a blind person who has been implanted with a visual prosthesis, such as an artificial retina. Scientists hope that this approach may one day give blind persons the freedom of independent mobility.

Artificial retinas are comprised of a silicon chip that is studded with a number of electrodes that directly stimulate retinal nerve cells. Artificial retinas capture images using a miniature camera, placed either externally or internally. The captured images are processed and passed along to the implanted silicon chip's electrode array. The chip directly stimulates the eye's functional retinal ganglion cells, which carry the image information to the vision centers in the brain.

Only a limited number of people have been implanted with artificial retinas worldwide, and testing can be time consuming and tiring. "We can use CYCLOPS in lieu of a blind person," says Wolfgang Fink, a visiting associate in physics at Caltech, who developed CYCLOPS with Mark Tarbell, also a Caltech visiting scientists. Work was conducted at Caltech's Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Lab. "We can equip it with a camera just like what a blind person would have with a retinal prosthesis," says Fink. "And that puts us in the unique position of being able to dictate what the robot receives as visual input." CYCLOPS is the first such device to emulate what a blind person can see with an implant.

The development of CYCLOPS and potential uses were described in a paper by Fink and Tarbell, published online in the journal Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine, entitled "CYCLOPS: A mobile robotic platform for testing and validating image processing and autonomous navigation algorithms in support of artificial vision prostheses." The work described in the paper was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (EEC 03-10723).

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