DARPA implant could give people Terminator-like vision

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Leave it to the US Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create something that makes smart glasses and augmented reality headsets seem passé: the team behind some of the military’s most cutting edge technology is creating implants that can give people Terminator vision.

According to CNET, the DARPA boffins are reportedly working on a device known as a ‘cortical modem’ that plugs directly into a person’s DNA and visual cortex. Not only does this unique device help someone overcome blindness or poor eyesight, it generates a built-in heads-up display (HUD) that appears right in before their very eyes.

The cortical modem was presented by project leader Phillip Alvelda during a recent biological technologies conference in Silicon Valley, the website added. The implants create an augmented reality projection that appears like magic in your natural vision and without the need for helmets or special eyeglasses.

Alvelda’s project is built on the concepts of optogenetics, which is the study and controlling of specific cells within living tissue through light. Proteins that are light-responsive are added into the brains of a person, making it possible for scientists to easily activate or deactivate neurons in order to study and perhaps eventually control neurological activity.

Ultimately, the goal is to use optogenetics to correct neurological disorders, and the cortical modem could do just that by restoring the vision of someone who has lost his or her sight. For now, DARPA plans to use a miniature $10 device about the same size as a pair of coins that would produce an HUD roughly equal to that of an LED alarm clock.

“The implications of this project are astounding,” wrote Peter Rothman of Humanity+ Magazine, who was in attendance at the event. “First, this technology could be used to restore sensory function to individuals who simply can’t be treated with current approaches. Second, the device could replace all virtual reality and augmented reality displays.”

“Bypassing the visual sensory system entirely, a cortical modem can directly display into the visual cortex enabling a sort of virtual overlay on the real world,” he added. “Moreover, the optogenetics approach allows both reading and writing of information. So we can imagine at least a device in which virtual objects appear well integrated into our perceived world.”

The possibilities go even further, though, Rothman said. The cortical modem could potentially make electronic telepathy and telekinesis possible, and could make the neural interfaces made popular by science fiction writer’s a reality. Those advances are still a long way off, however, as the cortical modem in its current form is still, in Rothman’s words, a “crude” device.

“This isn’t going to give you a high fidelity augmented reality display soon. And since the current approach is based in optogenetics, it requires a  genetic alteration of the DNA in your neurons,” he explained. “The health implications are unknown, and this research is currently limited to work with animal models. Specifically discussed was a real time imaging of the zebrafish brain with about 85,000 neurons.”


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